Prioritising mental health in the newsroom: How to create a culture of well-being

About a decade ago, Dave Seglins covered the trial of a Canadian military commander who had turned into a serial killer. The trial was graphic, and it was not easy to sit through.

“A couple days after the sentencing, I had a total break, which I wouldn’t have used that word at the time,” recalled Seglins, an investigative reporter and well-being champion with CBC News in Toronto, during a one-hour virtual session about prioritizing mental health in newsrooms on Jan. 17. “I just thought I was dying, and I couldn’t get out of bed and I was having all of these responses that I did not understand.”

A family doctor referred him to a trauma specialist who told him that what he was experiencing was a normal reaction to what he had witnessed during the trial. He was having a post-traumatic stress response.

“We are incredibly good in this business to prioritize the story and the content and the product,” said Seglins, who recently co-authored a study on the mental health and well-being of Canadian media workers. “What we’re not great at is managing the people and making it okay for people to be imperfect and to be affected by the work.”

Along with Seglins, the webinar included Scott Blanchard, director of journalism at public media station WITF in Harrisburg, Pa., a board member for the Trust for Trauma Journalism; Sewell Chan, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, who led his newsroom in the coverage of the 2022 mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde; and Dr. Elana Newman, research director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma and McFarlin Professor of Psychology at the University of Tulsa. I moderated the session, which was hosted by The Journalist’s Resource.

Below is the recording of the session, and you can read the transcript here. I’ve also highlighted five of my favourite takeaways from the discussion and listed several resources, including two books mentioned by the panellists.

1. Learn about basic trauma terminology.

Trauma, stress and burnout are not the same and should not be treated the same.

Stress is not being able to meet the demands at that time, Newman explained. “We all have stress, and stress can make traumatic stress worse. And in fact, I have researched with my students, and I have discovered that it’s trauma plus a toxic organizational environment for journalists that’s the lethal combination. And that’s why we can’t always reduce the exposure, but we can make the organization safer,” she said.

Trauma is a complex and ambiguous noun and can refer to a physical wound or psychologic injury, according to The Dart Center Style Guide for Trauma-Informed Journalism. “It can refer to a one-time experience or aftermath of overwhelming fear, or the cumulative, complex impact of ongoing abuse and threat, or both,” according to the guide.

Meanwhile, burnout is separate from trauma, Newman said. “It can be related, but burnout is when you have just too much to do, and it overwhelms your resources, and it usually leads to exhaustion, cynicism,” she said.

There’s also vicarious trauma, which refers to psychological changes resulting from cumulative, empathetic engagement with trauma survivors in a professional context, according to Dart’s style guide. It refers to a changed worldview. “And it’s actually technically refers to both positive and negative ways that your worldview may be changed,” Newman said. “You may see danger everywhere. You may see the world as only a terrible place.

“The world is a dangerous place, but there’s also safety in it. There’s also beauty in it, and trying to keep that balance is important,” she said.

2. Become a champion for mental health in your newsroom.

In Seglins’ case, he took an online course through Harvard Medical School to learn about the concepts of global mental health and trauma and the brain science of stress and trauma. He was a fellow of Dart Center’s 2022 Ochberg Fellowship, a program that deepens journalists’ reporting of violence and tragedy.

Holding a town hall meeting was one of the first things Seglins did at CBC News in his role as well-being champion.

He and his colleagues started with a simple question: What can we do to build a culture of well-being around here? They recorded ideas, sent out a short survey to their colleagues, published the results internally and prompted a company-wide discussion.

“If you’re a reporter in the newsroom, own it. Just do it,” Seglins said. “Say, ‘Hey, let’s get together. Let’s have an event.’ We all know how to run a Zoom call now. Doesn’t take much.”

3. Develop protocols for covering traumatic events and hold training sessions.

Blanchard helped create a committee among several newsrooms on the East Coast, and together, they developed a guide on how a trauma awareness and peer-support program in a newsroom would operate.

They followed that with a day-long training for Central Pennsylvania newsrooms with experts, including Newman and a psychologist with a local healthcare system. That training included role-playing for peer support. They held another training, led by the Dart Center, for the broader East Coast newsroom cohort.

“We can change newsroom by newsroom, person by person. We can change. We can make the change happen,” Blanchard said.

Dart Center provides a range of training sessions to news organizations and journalism-related nonprofits around the world.

4. Have a specific plan for covering mass tragedies.

“We should recognize, and our default should be that covering a massively traumatic event demands that we think about the processing of it and the aftermath of it, and offer people the help, rather than waiting for them to come forward and say that they need it,” said Chan.

At Texas Tribune, following the Uvalde mass shooting, Chan reached out to the Dart Center and Trust for Trauma Journalism for guidance.

The news managers insisted that reporters who had been on the ground for a certain number of days had to leave even if they wanted to stay on this story. The newsroom held sessions for the entire staff to talk about processing what they had just seen and observed. And they brought in a counsellor to help a smaller set of journalists who were dealing specifically with very graphic material footage that had emerged from the tragedy.

“We can’t say anymore, ‘Well, these are exceptions.’ You have to actually build into your newsroom protocols [with the thought] that something traumatic is probably going to happen,” said Chan, whether it’s a natural or human-caused tragedy.

5. Put people first.

“We do need to be results-oriented as organizations, but we also need to be people-centred,” said Chan. “There’s a human capital crisis in much of journalism. If we’re losing people because we have not supported them, really shame on us because that’s not only a sign of institutional failure, but also it’s not efficient.”

He hoped that people on the finance side of news operations hear the message and realize that there’s a cost associated with losing and replacing journalists.

“It’s much better to help your existing people to succeed than see a portion of them leave out of frustration or burnout,” said Chan. “There’s this opportunity cost. It doesn’t seem like a cost unless you think about all the other things that you now have to do to make up for that lost work or that lost talent. And that’s really a tragedy.”

Additional resources:

This article first appeared on The Journalist’s Resource and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Image by Sabrina Eickhoff from Pixabay

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