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Mental Health Strategies for the Non-Invincible Newsroom

A brief interview with SRCCON:WORK speaker Erin Brown


SRCCON:WORK is coming up fast. In the run-up to the event, we’re publishing short interviews with the nine people selected to give talks to frame the participatory sections at the heart of the conference. Here’s our Q&A with Erin Brown, a former sports journalist and producer who’s now a lecturer of new media. Erin will speak about “how our jobs which thrive on adrenaline, long hours, terrible habits, and an aura of invincibility can leave us utterly unprepared for everything to fall apart.”

Erin Brown on Addressing Stress & Trauma in Journalism

Source: Hi Erin! Would you introduce yourself to our readers, please?

I’m a lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Media Management at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. I teach front-end web design and development—many things code related—and I’m often a go-to person for tech-in-journalism questions among my colleagues.

I jokingly call myself a “recovering” journalist, though I miss the work sometimes. My background was in sports. I’ve done stints with a few major sports news entities—ESPN, CBS Sports, Fox Sports—in many roles, including reporter, editor, and web producer.

Awareness of mental health has unfortunately coincided with my journalism career from the start. I was in New York City doing an internship when September 11 happened. It was a tough year not just learning my craft, but doing so under personal duress. I’ve learned over the years caring for mental health conditions is an almost daily task, and crises can be especially challenging when you’re just trying to do a job you love.

I became inspired to give this talk in part because I noticed the mention of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the “things to do” guide at SRCCON this past August. I know of (and, sadly, knew) people in the industry who resort to self-medicating, so I felt immense respect for the idea to include this. Alcoholism and addiction should not be a stigma. Neither should mental illness. We should be open and talk about these issues. Tackling these problems will help us do our jobs better and we can find means to be happy and have a better sense of self-compassion.

Source: How can journalism teachers and mentors instill good strategies in their students, around mental health? Is there anything we can do to insulate and protect the next generation?

In many ways, we’re purveyors of the information which some say create “mean world syndrome.” Unless we only report on, say, zoo animal births, it is very hard to insulate ourselves from the world in which we cover. We will never be entirely free from the stress of our work.

I believe there are academics who already acknowledge the need to be compassionate about student mental health issues. But not all do, and this is disappointing. I had one student confide in me another professor called her mental illness an “inconvenience.”

I’m not suggesting we go soft and take away the rigors of a university environment. Or tone down the intensity of a newsroom or deadlines for younger journalists. But we have to remember this is the time when we all became adults; it was never easy, even with the support of family and friends. And it is a time where many mental health conditions surface. Being open about offering a place of refuge where young adults can feel safe to ask for help, I think, is the first step.

With journalism, there are added beasts: Stress and traumatic stress. If we’re lucky, we only deal with the former in our career. We cannot ignore the fact that many journalists willingly venture into or stumble into situations which are exceedingly stressful. Wars. Civil unrest. Violence. Natural disasters. School shootings. Tragic situations. The worst of humanity.

I don’t blame my journalism professors at the University of Florida for rarely pointing out the darker side of what we do—though we were briefly exposed to it because of the 1990 Gainesville murders. When you think about what we know today regarding traumatic stress, that knowledge has only come into focus since I graduated. And that has largely been through the experiences of our military veterans. It can very easily apply to journalists as well.

Making future journalists aware of these stressful situations and how they manifest mentally and/or physically is another step. Generations before mine might have seen swapping war stories or the post-deadline trip to a bar as tradition rather than cathartic. We know better now. We are aware of more effective ways to cope with stress. Acknowledgement also allows us to collaborate with researchers who are seeking new treatments. If awareness exists, we can be part of the solution, too.

Lastly, we’ve got to find a way to teach younger and future journalists to have a healthy media diet away from the newsroom and field. I always tell non-journalists we consume a firehose of information to the face in order to give the public a drink from the garden hose. That in itself is stressful. Many reporters, editors, and producers don’t realize the amount of content they’re consuming away from work. It sets our future journalists up for a burnout much quicker than previous generations.

Maybe this involves teaching more efficient use of our digital tools or simply adding life-work balance seminars. I’ve only been able to make my students aware of this last one, but haven’t discovered the solution to getting them to stick with it.

Source: What do you wish you could dig into in your talk, but won’t have the time to discuss?

My talk will stick to the details you need to know to if/when you experience severe burnout, or a worse, a breakdown. I wish I had time to facilitate discussion on how we can prevent these situations in the first place.

How do we find balance between our requirement to feed a 24/7 news cycle and still disconnect? What culture can we bring to newsrooms to convince individuals to slow a breakneck pace in order to care for themselves? Are there other safety nets we can put in place which we haven’t considered yet? Can newsrooms develop some kind of “R&R” policy on short notice after traumatic events?

Some of these ideas involve changing individual thinking and establishing a culture which supports it. Others, I think fall to management to care for their workers beyond the typical benefits package. With journalism experiencing a resurgence in the past year, hopefully the investment expansion we see in process will also extend to the well-being of personnel.

Credits

  • Erin Brown

    Erin Brown, a former sports journalist and producer, is now a lecturer of new media at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. When not coding, she enjoys reading, SCUBA diving, and chilling out with her two cats, Flynn and Quorra.

  • Erin Kissane

    Editor, Source

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