The Panama Papers leak is a case example of how widespread and large-scale an investigation can become. Reporters from 107 different organisations worked collaboratively for over a year, analysing 11.5 million leaked documents.
It is also a good example of the personal toll working on such an investigative can have on those in the thick of the story.
Investigative data journalist Mar Cabra was one of five members on the leadership team for the Panama Papers project, as head of data at the ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists).
After the story broke, four of those five would need to take at least a year away from journalism due to burnout, with Cabra leaving the industry entirely.
Cabra revealed at Impress’ Trust in Journalism conference (14 November 2019) the extent of burnout she suffered as a result of the investigation.
“I was a very passionate person on the team. Nobody was cracking a whip next to me; it was myself because I thought we were making history," she explained. “I don’t think I evaluated correctly the personal impact it would have.”
Her passion to report on the story and meet the deadline meant skipping meals and working long hours, for months and even years.
“I would work 16 hour days, wake up very early and go to bed at 5am. I would forget to eat because I thought I have to answer these people before they left the office.
“I had emails, chat messages and text messages all the time because we were working with people in Japan, Australia, Spain and the United States. That was very difficult to manage.”
By the end of 2017, Cabra had reached a state of exhaustion and apathy towards her work. It prompted her to quit her job and not even prestigious accolades could tempt her to stay.
“No other leak convinced me as interesting. I would be picking up the Pulitzer Prize with my colleagues in New York and then going back home and being unhappy," Cabra said.
With journalists so often very passionate about the work they are doing, they can sometimes put their journalism ahead of their families and own self-preservation.
Cabra criticised the common industry practice of journalists working well beyond scheduled hours. She stressed the need for working caps to be in place to prevent burnout.
“Some people leave the newsroom at 10pm sometimes. In journalism, we’re more forgiving about things that in other professions are not accepted.
“We should talk more about establishing different guidelines and processes in certain media organisations that respect the limits."
That said, sometimes journalists do not know when to stop. They also need to learn self-discipline to understand human boundaries, like disconnecting from social media.
"Projects like this sometimes come at a high personal cost, so we should be thinking about how can we have projects like this be done repeatedly without burning out," she concluded.
Save the date: our Newsrewired conference takes place on 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets
Free daily newsletter
- Weekly journalism news update: design thinking, mobile journalism for local news and UK data units
- Disinformation, distrust, disengagement: how can we reinvent journalism?
- Weekly journalism news update: Mental health in the newsroom, Instagram and Brexit coverage
- World Mental Health Day: How can journalists and news audiences take better care of themselves?
- World News Day: Misinformation, mobile journalism and mental health