Tips to help journalists cope with pandemic and other stress 

Diana J. Smith

Photo by Karolina Grabowska via pexels.

As we enter year three of the pandemic, many journalists continue to search for strategies to help them cope with mental health fallout from both experiencing and covering COVID-19.

Several recent surveys show journalists during the pandemic have experienced high rates of symptoms associated with post traumatic distress syndrome (PTSD) like anxiety, depression, flashbacks, negative changes in thinking or mood and increased reactivity to emotionally charged events.

“It is incredibly stressful to live through a pandemic and it is also stressful to report on a pandemic,” Melody Shreiber, a New Republic columnist and health care freelance journalist said at a Sept. 30 National Press Club panel discussion on mental health and well-being in journalism. 

Around a third of journalists surveyed by The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma Research Center at the University of Tulsa between September 2021 and February 2022 reported symptoms that would be “consistent with a PTSD diagnosis,” according to Elana Newman, Ph.D., research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. 

“There is an alarming amount of stress in virtually all corners of the industry,” said a May 2022 report sponsored by Canada’s Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma about the mental health impact of covering COVID-19 and other trauma.  

So, what have some journalists done to manage work-related stress?

Schreiber joined four other panelists to discuss this question and offer advice to their colleagues. The other reporters included: Orion Rummler, reporter for The 19th News, Jessica Washington, senior reporter at The Root; Patricia Zengerle, congressional correspondent at Reuters, and J. Raymond DePaulo, Jr., M.D., chairperson of the National Network of Depression Centers. 

While only Schreiber was covering the pandemic, all of the reporters had experience with covering traumatic events and had developed coping methods with some similar themes:

  • If you are working on something stressful, take multiple breaks to exercise or move your body. “You need to do something physical to let the stress out, like exercising, or having a really long hug, or doing some art,” said Rummler, who has written about suicide. 
  • If you are going to conduct a stressful interview on the phone, find a comfortable place to do it so your body is less stressed. “I don’t do my really serious, really difficult interviews at my desk,” said Washington, who writes about race and gender justice. She said if she is home, she’ll conduct them on her couch because “it just makes me feel a little bit better.”
  • Talk to friends and colleagues about your stress. “I think as journalists we have this stiff upper lip going on and we don’t want to talk, but really there is no benefit of pretending everything is fine,”Rummler said. 
  • Set work boundaries for yourself by taking time off. “Find the things you really love doing that aren’t stressful,” said DePaulo. “Take care of yourself first.”
  • Don’t be shy about advocating for yourself and seeking medical help, especially if your company offers it as an employee benefit. “I have an excellent therapist who was referred to me by [Reuters,]” said Zengerle, who was reporting in the Capitol building during the Jan. 6 attacks. “Take advantage of those resources.” 

AHCJ members may also be interested in rewatching a Sept. 15, 2021 webcast on mental health resources for reporters, which remains relevant today. Check out these presentation slides for more links to mental health resources.

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