Media Adviser is an advice column from journalist and psychotherapist Rebekah Holt that offers insight on recurring media dramas and their related ethical dilemmas.
Q: It feels like everyone in my newsroom is dropping like flies with burnout. Is it just a reality we have to deal with on the job, or is there something wrong with the industry? I worry that the levels of anxiety I experience mean I’m just not cut out for the job in the first place.
A: I have thought about this a lot and I think there is a industry-wide problem with not acknowledging the stresses inherent to the job.
What I mean here is two-fold, working in news involves demanding hours and more often than not operating under a lot of pressure, while there is also implicit approval from our bosses when we are perceived to be tough. That doesn’t encourage us to acknowledge our stress openly.
Additionally, our work means we are mostly witnessing people’s lives in their worst moments. And that’s our job on a basic level: we go to work and collate stories about very, very bad things and deliver the public a curated package of those bad things, which we then try to lighten up by combining it with some sports, weather or Kardashians.
Personally I don’t think burnout adequately covers what we often experience in a clinical sense. Therapists are aware of what’s called vicarious trauma, which is the residue from working with clients; I think journalists/newsrooms would benefit from even the most basic acknowledgement that what we do day in and day out puts us in a similar (but not identical) position without the same support structures.
Therapists benefit from clinical supervision; something akin would be invaluable within newsrooms. But with rapidly decreasing budgets, I don’t envisage that happening soon.
In terms of where you are right now, I believe you could benefit from some therapy with the right person. Look for a therapist that works with clients from police, medical staff and emergency workers. That is the quickest hack to find someone who will get what you do, and have familiarity with what you are exposed to. I recommend talking to several to get a feel for who might work best for you.
On a broader level, try and find time to have conversations with co-workers that help you metabolise or process your work. As an industry, we tend to hit the booze to facilitate that, but that can lead to a whole other problem.
If you work with a few people you enjoy, take time to have booze-free catch-ups with some general ground rules (it should be a confidential unloading zone). Have a think about what you need. Is it to be listened to with little or no input? Is it a more active listening? And can the person handle it? Don’t set yourself up with a bad listener or someone who doesn’t have the capacity for peer support.
The good thing about a therapist is that they can handle it, and you don’t even have to ask about how they are. You can tap back into therapy on an as-required basis.
Oh and it’s also illegal for them to scoop you.