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Credit: Photo by Domingo Alvarez E on Unsplash

Journalism is an emotional profession that comes with a range of feelings: interview nerves, the happiness or sadness in our stories, the anxiety of how your work will be received, the stress of getting trolled online - and if we are being honest, the jealousy of getting scooped by your rival.

Journalists often pride themselves on having thick skin and not letting their emotions cloud their judgment. There is a big difference between resilience and bottling up your emotions, though.

It is the latter that journalists tend to do because they are often not trained to deal with their emotions, says Maja Šimunjak, senior lecturer in journalism at Middlesex University, and the author of a new book Managing Emotions in Journalism: A Guide to Enhancing Resilience, speaking on an episode of the Journalism.co.uk podcast.

Emotional management strategies

Her book is a practical guide to resilience informed by interviews with professional journalists - resilience, being steps put in place to navigate and withstand the emotional situations and stressors journalists encounter in their jobs.

Resilience can be enhanced through emotional intelligence, defined as the ability to recognise, articulate and rationalise our emotions. We cannot enact solutions without first having the awareness to know they are needed.

The 'stop, think and choose' model is a helpful one to start with. Simply pause what you are doing and ask: why am I feeling this way and what can I do about it? That might result in a digital detox, setting different work-life boundaries or changing the story beat for a while.

Emotional intelligence is a skill that can be learned, which helps to get more positive outcomes in a given situation, like reducing stress or improving communication with those around us.

It is not just for the negative emotions. Being over-excited and full of adrenaline can lead to sloppiness, distraction and ignoring proper routines.

'Emotional management strategies' do not bury emotions. Instead, they validate and deal with them. Another to note is 'stepping', which is breaking down a task into manageable steps. Handy when feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or nervous.

Breaking a big task down into bullet points or a checklist makes the whole process seem less daunting. There is also a nice dopamine hit when you can cross these off one by one.

"By making it conscious and an active decision, by default, that makes people usually feel better because you have agency over what’s happening - it’s not something happening to you, it’s something you’re doing," explains Šimunjak.

In her interviews with professional journalists as part of the book, Šimunjak found that pride is a particular emotion many find difficult to deal with, owing to the audience often voicing their dissatisfaction with the standard of their work. Another is guilt, as in times of war and conflict, when many journalists feel bad that they are reporting from a position of safety while their sources and colleagues are often in danger.

Moral courage

The trouble is that guilt can often be misplaced, according to Dr Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, a world-leading expert on the psychological effects of conflict reporting, and the author of a new book, Moral Courage: 19 Profiles of Investigative Journalists.

He has encountered this "cognitive trap" many times in his 23 years of research into this space. Photographers often feel guilt when accepting awards, feeling as though they are "feeding off the misery of others" and are "benefiting from their pain". He tells those journalists to find comfort in that their work ensures important stories are documented, he explained on an episode of the Journalism.co.uk podcast.

His book focuses on what drives these journalists to go to such extreme lengths for a story when the risks are as high as arrest, torture, a ruined career, or even assassination.

In interviews with 19 frontline journalists, this deep motivation comes from a concept called moral courage. This is not a new phenomenon amongst war veterans and soldiers. Indeed, the author and ethicist Dr Rushworth Kidder pioneered a lot of this research.

But in journalism, this idea has not received much prominence beyond Feinstein's work with Hannah Storm, co-founder of the Headlines Network, who co-published a report into how journalists were affected by the coverage of the refugee crisis which reached its peak in 2015, when more than one million migrants arrived in Europe.

The journalists involved experienced 'moral injury', defined as a "condition that can arise from witnessing, perpetrating or failing to prevent acts that transgress your moral compass." Note that it is not a mental illness.

Uncomfortable emotions - such as shame, guilt, disgust and anger - follow from feelings that are morally compromising in some way. Moral courage would be the antidote to these emotions: acting, reporting and speaking out, even at great personal risk.

"To keep these powerful emotions at bay, moral courage helps. Keeping quiet is just not an option, it’s inexcusable. By keeping quiet, it’s an act of omission, a failure to [for example] call out your government, prime minister or president for morally egregious behaviour."

Some do deem the risks too severe to carry on, and end up fleeing the country and only return when the risk has simmered down. It is likely the case now that journalists in democracies will find themselves facing such hard decisions, he continues. Politicians like Donald Trump "borrow from the playbook" of autocratic leaders like Putin, Orban and Erdoğan who take extreme measures against the press.

So what can be done to support journalists so desperate to be a bastion of freedom? After more than 1,000 interviews with frontline journalists, Feinstein finds that early intervention and better education about psychological risks can give journalists a fighting chance to be emotionally healthy.

But the single biggest emotional protective factor for a journalist - spanning different cultures, demographics and counties - is good, supportive relationships in newsrooms.

One of the ironic risks of moral injury is that it can erode this crucial protection: journalists can experience behavioural change, becoming withdrawn, cynical and self-doubting. It can damage relationships and lead to depression and substance abuse, in a bid to cope with uncomfortable emotions.

Happiness at the core of the newsroom

Finding happiness in a bottle is not the answer. But focusing on what makes you happy is a sound idea.

Avery Holton is the chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, and the co-editor of a new book, Happiness In Journalism. The book looks at happiness as a counter-balance to the inevitable lows that come with the territory of being a journalist today.

Worth reiterating is that this goes for journalists in war zones, as well as those getting abused on social media, Holton says on an episode of the Journalism.co.uk podcast. When asked what makes us happy, it is easy to focus on individual choices: hobbies, work, or family. The same is true of interventions.

The book makes an argument for happiness at the centre of newsroom culture. Some of the explored solutions include devising small community gatherings or enacting larger policies (such as granting time off when encountering online abuse or resources akin to counselling).

In reality, newsrooms supporting journalists does not mean taking a prescriptive approach. It can be as simple as listening to their needs and putting them into motion. One of the most practical options is a workplace survey to simply ask what support journalists need. Journalists ultimately want to feel like their organisation "has their back" when it matters most.

"Newsrooms have an opportunity to stand up and [seize] a defining moment to create a new culture of happiness and well-being for journalists," says Holton.

"If they don't, they're going to isolate and alienate journalists at a time when they cannot afford to do that."

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