When journalism gets stressful

If everyone suffers from information overload these days, spare a thought for the stressed journalists who filter that information for you…

When a South African woman stood trial in New Zealand for killing her three young children, I did not read any of the reports about it. I could not avoid seeing the headlines, but I could choose not to click on any of them. I just couldn’t see how dipping my mind into that awfulness did anybody any good.

 I didn’t have that choice on an early morning news shift when news broke that people had died, and were still dying, in a fire in a building in Johannesburg.

Even though my work at allAfrica.com involves curating content rather than directly editing text, I had to skim copy, look for usable pictures, try to get a sense of the death toll, scan Twitter (now inexplicably called X) for further breaking news.

In other words, get immersed in the story, so that it could be told.

Why telling stories is important

The question of why these stories need to be told is complex – but in the case of the Johannesburg fire, the deaths of all those people are intertwined in a larger set of narratives, about governance and poverty and neglect. And it is important that the government officials who have vested interests of various kinds are held to account by outsiders – and to that end, the story must be investigated and told.

Telling the story is imperative if we are to understand our world. But what happens when the story a journalist is immersed in is horrific? How do you deal with the images that arise in your mind, the imagined suffering that people endured?

I am not at all suggesting that the pain of an observer is anything like the pain suffered by the person who is at the centre of events. But having no choice but to think about events like these is not nothing, either.

Journalists are taught in these kinds of situations to maintain a professional distance. This is certainly the mindset that pervaded journalism when I started out. The reporter and photographer’s jobs were to get the story and tell it to the best of their abilities. Their feelings about what they had seen or heard were not relevant, and could and should be dealt with elsewhere (that elsewhere was almost always the local pub). The general motto was largely along the lines of “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”.

To this day, that’s how I deal with the bad or sad or mad news that crosses my screen. I put my feelings aside and focus on getting the job done. Long years of practice mean that I can get through almost any awfulness and feel almost nothing. (If I can, though, I avoid “doing” stories about the suffering of children: motherhood has made a chink in my armour).

Mental wellness is part of the agenda now

But things have changed. I belong to the South African National Editor’s Forum (SANEF), which last week sent out an email reminding members that SANEF has a partnership with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, and encouraging “newsroom leaders to please ensure that the necessary support, counselling and debriefs are made available to all team members”.

I cannot say how glad I am that the mental health of journalists has come into mainstream awareness in this way. I know many people who would be better off (or alive) today if this had been a thing when they were young and impressionable.

People should get help when they need it, no question.

But I think there is some merit in the old idea of being able to stand the heat in the kitchen.

The reason that people become journalists is to tell stories. And those stories will not always be pleasant ones. In the end, I go back to a quote I wrote down years ago:

“I said to my friend we must go on, these things must be made known. That is my only justification.”

My notes in a very old notebook say the words were written by David Robbins. I know they date to the 1980s, and I suspect they come from The 29th parallel: A South African journey. My memory is that he was writing about journalism. All those theories about something that struck me as meaningful years ago, don’t really matter now. It’s that phrase “these things must be made known” that underpins all of my thinking about journalism.

A certain amount of mental toughness is needed in the process of making things known. Putting one’s personal feelings aside is not just a survival mechanism, it’s a requirement. Because that’s what journalists do: they go where other people don’t want to go. They will always be at the service of the story.

My advice to anyone thinking of entering the field then is this: you are there to make things known. That’s your duty. Do the job, and get help for yourself when you can. But you will always be less important than the story.  

Main picture: Josefa nDiaz, Unsplash

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