14 June | 2024

Lahore, Pakistan

Journalists must maintain mental safety to cover news events, creating opinion

Media houses should provide journalists counseling service, work-life balance, healthy work environment, and ensure access to resources to protect mental health in a high-stress profession

Last week, one of my students shared her thoughts during a lecture about how constant exposure to the news full of nothing but ‘negativity’ can impact mental health of news consumer and mentioned that she may write about why people should avoid watching the news altogether. Unequivocally, this is not the long-term solution. It is challenging to watch when news focuses on negative events such as crime, accidents, domestic and workplace violence, war or war-like situation, political unrest, economic downturn, and environmental issues. It can create a perception that the world is a ‘dangerous’ or ‘threatening’ place, a feeling of helplessness or powerlessness in people, low motivation to take action on issues, and a feeling of unsafe. It can cause fear, stress, anxiety, depression, and physical health consequences in the audience, even if the actual risk of vulnerability is relatively low.

I had been considering writing about it for some time but now this experience just made me feel more compelled to write about it at once to offer some insight about minds of some journalists. We can observe that the journalists routinely cover stories that are subject to a variety of opinions, including policies of channels, sponsorship, and ratings. However, the mindset of the reporters has a significant impact on how news stories are framed. As a psychologist and a writer, I have seen firsthand how the 24-hour news cycle can take a toll on mental health. It’s important to take into account the impact on journalists when witnessing negative events, as this can have a direct effect on their view of the world and their interpretation of events.

‘A reporter has to cover what is happening around him and communicate it accurately and objectively to his audience, using clear and brief language’

As part of his duty, a reporter has to cover what is happening around him and communicate it accurately and objectively to his audience, using clear and brief language. His mind determines perspective and verbatim for interpreting situations or events. The reporters are often tasked with reporting on some of the most difficult and traumatic events from the society. Exposure to such events can impact their cognitive process, leading to feelings of helplessness, perceived lack of safety, and dissatisfaction with life. A persistent negative and toxic thought pattern can hinder their ability to maintain balance and objectivity in their reporting and ultimately resulting in unbiased reporting. According to research by Backholm and Bjorkqvist, 86–100 percent of the journalists have covered events that can be contemplated as possibly traumatic and 55 percent of them have been covered in the last 12 months of their job.

Repeated interaction of journalists with people in distress or people who are suffering effects of trauma lead to strain and exhaustion, ultimately resulting in compassion fatigue in them. It involves a complete loss of empathy for victims of trauma. That’s why we observe sensational language to describe a crime such as referring to a suspect as a ‘monster’ or a ‘killer’, focusing only on negative aspects such as highlighting the death toll of a disaster without adding relief efforts, blaming a particular individual or group for a problem without identifying underlying causes that contributed to the situation, using disagreeable language to describe a particular person or a group, failing to fact check information and showing disturbing images or videos.

‘Repeated interaction with people in distress or people who are suffering effects of trauma lead to strain and exhaustion, resulting in compassion fatigue in journalists’

I conducted extensive research in collaboration with Psychology Professor of Punjab University Dr Afsheen Masood to uncover the psychological, social, and job-related factors that can contribute to compassion fatigue in journalists. During my research, reporters from Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi were examined through surveys and interviews to find out predictors of compassion fatigue. Most common psychological issues involved mood swings, overthinking, tension, thoughts of being emotionally insensitivity, feelings of disconnection, thoughts about traumatic events, detachment, irritability, feelings of helplessness, confusion of self, anger, feelings of prolonged sadness, frustration, mental fatigue, sleep disruption, horrible dreams, severe mental pain, fear of death, reduce attention span, reduce focus, low self-control, loss of empathy and guilt.

Social and personal factors reported by the journalists are work-family imbalance, family insecurity, reduced time spent with family and participation in family events, reduced get together with friends, while female reporters experiencing visual harassment and criticism for being crime reporters, and an unsupportive attitude sometime from general public. The job-related issues included work pressure, stress of invisible competition, tension of missing news stories, thoughts of quitting the job, unfair salary packages, lack of institutional support, favoritism, fear of losing the job, and financial issues. It’s crucial to provide sustainable and healthy culture to journalists as their minds play a major role in framing news and creating a public perception of the world. Mental health experts suggested that media organizations should provide journalists counseling service, promote work-life balance, provide healthy and sustainable work environment, besides ensuring access to resources to protect their mental health.