Mental health strategies for student newsrooms as the pandemic stretches on
By Tamara Kamis
As I juggled Crisis Text Line shifts and reporting commitments this summer, I learned that journalism and crisis counseling have a lot in common. In both roles, I identified problems people are facing, asked questions about plans being made to resolve issues, and identified resources to alleviate suffering. I recently finished my Crisis Text Line volunteer commitment, but took with me lessons about the importance of a supportive workplace.
Discussions of mental health challenges are normal for crisis counselors. The journalism industry, by comparison, still has a long way to go in creating healthy workplaces. However, many people, including my colleagues at The Cornell Daily Sun, are working hard to make welcoming environments for reporters to discuss and address mental health challenges on the job.
Being immersed in trauma — including racism, COVID-19 and natural disasters — while reporting on it can be distressing for student journalists, many of whom also have mental health concerns unrelated to their work. To build resilient newsrooms, we need to understand the issues we face, build supportive work environments, and identify resources to help ourselves and our colleagues.
Listen to the journalists at your paper
Journalist’s Resource compiled research on the factors, including covering disasters and experiencing constant time pressure, that can make mental health difficult for reporters. The CDC has found that pandemic has exacerbated mental health concerns across the population, including college students, many of whom had been experiencing mental health distress before COVID-19 began to spread. Creating welcoming environments for student journalists to discuss their struggles and what helps them cope can help us learn from each other and feel less alone.
Suzanna Claire Perry is a reporter and production manager at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. The skills Perry uses to deal with depressive episodes — taking breaks and focusing on what she can change — have also helped her with the challenges of covering COVID-19.
“Having anxiety over these situations and thinking about them too much isn’t going to change them,” said Perry. “I can't change what's happening around me, but I can change how I respond to it.”
Reporting on trauma comes with challenges for many reporters, and opportunities to debrief after tough stories can be helpful. Supporting one another includes understanding that for some, journalism is a way of coping with problems they have always known about.
Rainier Harris, a senior at Regis High School in New York City, has written freelance articles about a range of issues, including topics personal to him as a Black teenager. One of these articles was an essay in The New York Times about his high school’s strategies for dealing with his classmates’ racist behavior.
“A lot of things are happening in the world. With journalism, I feel like I have a chance to participate and find out things for myself, but also bring those issues to life for other people,” Harris said.
Develop a plan for facilitating collaboration and rest
Taking time off is helpful for student journalists, because everyone needs breaks and rest can make coping with a mental illness easier. A collaborative and healthy newsroom culture makes rest possible, because when student reporters work together, they can cover stories for each other.
I talked to The Cornell Daily Sun’s editor in chief Maryam Zafar about how she facilitates cooperation. Zafar said she sees multiple reporters working on the same beat as a way of training reporters, introducing new perspectives, and ensuring that critical coverage can always happen no matter who needs a break.
“Beat reporting is the way the world works, but on The Sun, where we are all learning together, the co-learning part (of news coverage) is really important,” Zafar said.
If an editor thinks more people should be covering a beat, one strategy Zafar recommends is assigning feature pieces to make room in the articles for multiple people to work together.
Adaptive strategies to support collaboration are especially important for student journalists dealing with continuing wildfires, in addition to COVID-19.
Madalyn Amato, editor in chief of the Daily 49er at California State University Long Beach, cannot host staff meetings outside to minimize COVID-19 risk because the air near campus this summer and fall has often been full of smoke. Instead, she runs meetings on Zoom, and regularly sends out Google forms to Daily 49er staff to see if changes are needed to support their wellbeing.
White reporters like myself should be careful not to constantly ask Black colleagues to look over our race-related reporting and writing. Requests to make sure that other reporters’ articles are not offensive can cause unnecessary stress for Black reporters and other student journalists of color. The Society Of Professional Journalists Race and Gender Hotline is one way to get questions answered without stressing out colleagues. It’s also important to have proactive conversations about inclusive coverage so this work isn’t left until deadline.
Investigate resources for you and your colleagues
Your first wellness resource is yourself — you know what helps you relax, and different strategies work for different people. I like to take a walk after I submit an article, and many at The Cornell Daily Sun exercise or make art to relax. If you feel frequently overwhelmed, it may be time to make seeking professional mental health care one of your coping strategies.
A health professional can help you find additional ways of relieving distress, including counseling, support groups and medications. Compile a list of mental health resources available through your school and area, as well as hotlines and informational websites, to help yourself and others. You deserve to feel OK, and you are not alone. The options below can help you get started.
Tamara Kamis is a student journalist focused on health and the environment. She is a junior biology and society major at Cornell with a minor in science communication and public engagement. She writes for The Cornell Daily Sun and is a freelance reporter with bylines in The Ithaca Voice and iGeneration Youth.