Editor's Blog·Editor's Note

Journalism used to mean keeping mental stress, trauma to yourself. Thankfully, that's changing

We are more aware today of mental stress and the risks faced by journalists. Like other professionals for whom traumatic events are an inevitable part of their work, we are learning that we must be as thoughtful and deliberate about our mental well-being as we are about our physical safety.

New survey of Canadian media workers finds a troubling amount of stress, anxiety, depression

A TV reporter gets emotional at the site of a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 4, 2019. A recent survey of Canadian media workers found more than half of respondents sought medical help to deal with work-related stress and trauma. One in 10 said they had thought about suicide after covering difficult stories. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

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It was Christmas morning and I was just a few months into my first job as a cub reporter at a newspaper in southwestern Ontario. As the newsroom's police radio scanner crackled to life, an older colleague joked about the inevitable tragedy we would be asked to cover. 

"There's always a tragedy on Christmas Day," he deadpanned.

A few hours later, three young people under 20 were killed when their car collided with a train. They were en route to their grandfather's house to pick up presents. 

At the scene, I watched an official, maybe the coroner, inspect the mangled wreck still on the train tracks. A blanket was lifted and I saw the body of a young woman. That image stayed with me all day. I couldn't shake it, even after my front page story was filed, even as I celebrated Christmas dinner with my family later that same night.

It is still with me today.

CBC's Ellen Mauro, right, and Peter Armstrong, centre, are seen at the airport in Haiti interviewing aid workers after an earthquake with a 7.2 magnitude was recorded on Aug. 14, 2021, claiming the lives of more than 1,200 people. (Paul Smith/CBC)

But that was journalism back then. You saw difficult things, however no one talked about trauma or mental health. Newsroom humour was dark and cavalier. "Well-being" was about getting the story right, beating the competition and making your bosses happy. No one checked in on you. No one thought that "checking in" was their job — or anyone else's job for that matter. 

Thankfully, we are more aware today of mental stress and the risks faced by journalists. Like other professionals for whom traumatic events are an inevitable part of their work, we are learning that we must be as thoughtful and deliberate about our mental well-being as we are about our physical safety. 

This evolution in our thinking can't happen fast enough according to a significant new survey of more than 1,200 Canadian media workers released Wednesday by Matthew Pearson of Carleton University and Dave Seglins, a journalist with CBC News. The survey found a troubling amount of stress, anxiety, depression and substance use in our industry. More than half of respondents sought medical help to deal with work-related stress and trauma. One in 10 said they had thought about suicide after covering difficult stories. 

Despite these findings, journalists and media workers continue to express high rates of job satisfaction. "What that tells us is that many media workers love their jobs, but their jobs don't always love them," say the report's authors. 

The survey is the latest in a growing body of evidence that suggests the profession of journalism is more fraught and beleaguered than ever before. 

LISTEN | The 'enormous change' of trauma-informed reporting:
It's a journalist's job to find the human stories behind disasters, violence, tragedy and hardship. But the telling of these stories can sometimes have devastating impacts for the subject and sometimes the journalist.

A worrying increase in violence, intimidation and abuse aimed at journalists in Canada has been well documented, including in this Ipsos survey on online harassment unveiled last year at the #NotOk industry conference organized by CBC/Radio-Canada. More recently, I wrote about the alarming hostility our journalists faced in the field and online during the convoy protests over vaccine mandates. 

Catherine Tait, CBC's president and CEO, spoke earlier this month to the Canadian Club of Toronto about how the harassment of journalists, disinformation and attacks on fact-based media are undermining democracy in Canada and around the world. These attacks, she noted, seek to "silence and discredit journalists, to bully them, to intimidate them, and directly undermines press freedom."

This abuse only adds to the mental strain that was always a part of the business due to tight deadlines, high journalistic standards and intense public scrutiny, not to mention the raw, graphic material that must be sorted through by newsroom employees on any given day.

For all of these reasons, CBC/Radio-Canada has made the well-being of its journalists a top priority. Among some recent developments:

  • We have appointed Seglins for a year into a new role as "Journalist and Well-being Champion" for CBC News, Current Affairs and Local. (You can listen to him describe his own workplace and mental health experience in a recent episode of the CBC podcast Sickboy.) He will deliver a new training program for staff and managers that addresses the unique workplace challenges and psychological harms faced by journalists.

  • We also offer training programs for CBC staff to help with resiliency, stress and exposure to graphic content. 

  • We are offering specialized post-deployment support for all CBC teams tasked with covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The new service includes check-ins, debriefs and referrals if necessary to counsellors with expertise supporting journalists in war zones. We intend to expand this service for newsgathering teams assigned to other types of traumatic stories in Canada and abroad, including the mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas. 

  • CBC/Radio-Canada has sponsored the creation of an industry guide aimed at newsroom leaders, to be officially released today. It provides a framework and best practices for how to think about and deal with online harms facing journalists. 

  • We have provided CBC journalists with tools and tips to help them limit the abuse and harassment they face on social media platforms. We have also made it clear to our staff that there is no obligation for them to post or engage on social media platforms using their personal accounts as part of their work for CBC. We have encouraged employees to step away from social media, whenever possible, for their mental health. 

We have come some distance since I first started out in journalism. 

Today, we are talking openly about well-being and the mental health of journalists in a way that was unimaginable when I was a young reporter seeing traumatic things for the first time. It's a meaningful development for the people doing news today, and for the next generation of journalists we hope to attract to this difficult but incredibly important and rewarding profession.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brodie Fenlon

Editor in chief

Brodie Fenlon is editor in chief and executive director of daily news for CBC News.

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