The long history of stress in journalism
Worker stress in the journalism industry has existed for so many decades that journalists sometimes seem resigned to a life of impending burnout. Back in 2004, University of Central Florida professor Fred Fedler researched the history of stress in journalism, saying it was important so that “beginners who understand the [stress] problem at the start of their careers are less likely to be surprised and disillusioned by it.”
He cited a 1999 Columbia Journalism Review article that noted “nearly 40 percent of the nation’s editors reported job-related health problems ranging from insomnia to alcoholism and hypertension.” And in a 1938 book called “Newspaperman,” James Keely wrote that editors typically kept a bottle of whiskey on their desk to deal with daily stress.
Stanley Walker, a New York Herald Tribune editor in the early 20th century, maintained that “some journalists were burned out and useless at [age] twenty-five” and said “nervous breakdowns” were common in the industry. Fedler wrote that a city editor in New York “went mad on the eve of the Spanish-American War” and that a managing editor in Chicago “collapsed” after managing coverage of the deadly Iroquois Theatre fire in 1903.
In her 1994 research paper, Otterbein College journalism researcher Betsy B. Cook found that copy editors’ “burnout scores” were higher than those of reporters “and also well above the norms for other professions.”
In the news business, there’s a historical stigma attached to admitting you need a break, a kind of old news culture that says, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
Other than a few mentions of alcohol, those who’ve studied media and stress typically haven’t offered many solutions or suggestions. Meanwhile, recent studies including those from the Tow Center show a steady increase in journalists’ workload and anxiety about job security.
In the news business, there’s a historical stigma attached to admitting you need a break, says the Dart Center’s Bruce Shapiro — “a kind of old news culture that says, ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.’” And it doesn’t help, says University of Central Oklahoma professor Desiree Hill, that journalists typically have been trained to be distant, including being distant from their own feelings.
“We don’t think about our own stress because the work can’t be about us,” says Hill, who began studying media trauma and stress after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Managers have the added responsibility of putting their staff’s needs before their own, sometimes leading to “secondary traumatic stress” and feelings of guilt and regret “when the journalists they manage suffer from traumatic events.”
Sarah Nagem, a journalist who spent years in traditional newsrooms before becoming editor of the nonprofit Border Belt Independent in North Carolina this year, says she’s concerned that “we are not grooming the next generation of managers.”
“They know what they want, and this is not it,” says Nagem. “They want their lives.”
For managers, rethinking and redesigning newsroom work can help reverse the historic stress-based newsroom structure.
Next chapter: What is work design?
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