The last year and a half has been monumentally challenging for journalists everywhere. The climate crisis, which seems to bring one weather disaster after another while governments mainly dawdle, is tough enough on journalists’ psyches.
But overlapping with the climate crisis have been the COVID-19 pandemic, the police murder of George Floyd and other deaths of people of color, and the attack on constitutional government exemplified by the January 6 violent assault on the US Capitol. Meanwhile, newsroom lay-offs drive further physical and emotional exhaustion as journalists are compelled to do the work that two, even three, former colleagues used to handle. Most journalists feel fortunate to work in this profession, but we risk burning out if we don’t take care of ourselves along the way.
To learn how to cope with climate grief and journalistic burnout, we gathered for 60 minutes of frank discussion among peers, supplemented by a mental health professional who has conducted extensive research surrounding this issue for journalists. It was a constructive conversation to help journalists recognize warning signs and understand how they can cope.
View the recording of the webinar HERE.
- Jarrett Hill, Journalist & President, NABJ Los Angeles
- Brian Kahn, Managing Editor, Earther at Gizmodo Media
- Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald, School of Psychology, Charles Sturt University
Mark Hertsgaard, CCNow’s executive director and the environment correspondent for The Nation, moderated.
Recommended Reading & Listening
- 9 Black Journalists on What It’s Been Like to Cover—And Cope With—The News
- Psych Attack podcast with Dr Jasmine MacDonald
- Journalists are under stress, what’s the solution?
- Beating burnout without quitting your job
Hello and welcome to another Talking Shop with Covering Climate Now. I’m Mark Hertsgaard. I am the executive director of Covering Climate Now. And also, I’m the environment correspondent for The Nation Magazine. Our subject today, coping with burnout and emotional fatigue on the climate beat and beyond. For those of you who don’t know, Covering Climate Now is a global consortium of hundreds of news outlets with a combined audience of roughly two billion people. We are organized by journalists, for journalists. We help journalists everywhere, whether they’re partner outlets or not to improve their coverage or what we call the defining story of our time.
It costs nothing to join Covering Climate Now. There’s no editorial line except for one point, you must respect climate science. You can find a list of our partners. You can sign up for our weekly newsletter, the Climate Beat. You can join our Slack channel, and you can apply for your news outlet to join Covering Climate Now all at our website, which surprisingly is coveringclimatenow.org.
So, in today’s Talking Shop, we’re talking about how we can keep doing our job as journalists despite the emotional and psychological challenges that come with covering subjects that frankly, are often upsetting and even depressing. The climate emergency which this summer seems to be bringing one extreme weather event after another is tough enough on journalists’ psyches. I’ve covered climate change for 30 years, and I can speak from personal experience on that. I sometimes also am tempted by climate despair. But over the last year and a half, our colleagues across the newsroom have also been challenged by some of the stories that we’ve been obligated to cover. Of course, first the COVID pandemic, then the police murder of George Floyd, and other Black and Brown people and the resulting racial justice protests. And then the 2020 elections. And then the resulting attempt on January 6th, the violent assault intended to overturn the 2020 election results and the defeat of Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, the continuing crisis of journalism’s business model has led to staff layoffs, and further psychological stress and exhaustion as we journalists are compelled to do the work that two or maybe even three of our former colleagues used to handle. I think as journalists that most of us feel fortunate to work in this profession. But we’re doing this today because we risk burning ourselves out if we don’t take care of ourselves and take care of one another. So, that’s the [inaudible 00:03:44], and in the spirit of full disclosure, let me begin by confessing that my colleagues at Covering Climate Now and I are as in need of help on this front as anyone.
There’s an ethos in journalism that says roughly, don’t complain about doing your job. If the story demands that you work overtime, you take god awful travel connections to get to where you need to be to report that story. You push through the fatigue, sometimes the despair, and you tell yourself, you’ll sleep when you’re dead. You put off doing the things that are needed for you to rest and rejuvenate until that story is done. And this Talking Shop exemplifies the point. We at Covering Climate Now have been talking about organizing a webinar on this subject for almost a year now. And my colleagues, Symone Moore, who’s running everything behind the scenes today has really been the champion of this. So, a shout out to you, Symone.
But we kept putting it off for all the usual journalistic reasons. There were other crucial issues that kept demanding our attention. First, of course, the elections and then the arrival of Biden administration in the White House. And then now the approach of the COP26 Summit. And we felt like we just had to step up to those so we pushed onwards until our own exhaustion finally made us look in the mirror and say, “Dude, you need help.” So, that’s what we’re trying to do today. And our panel includes two journalists. One from the Climate Beat, one who specializes in racial justice, and also a little bit of a departure for our Talking Shops, a mental health professional who has specifically studied how journalists can fall victim to emotional fatigue and burnout, and what we can do about it.
Now, I want to emphasize here, this webinar is not a counseling session. We encourage anyone who thinks that counseling might be useful to them to talk to your physician for a recommendation. That’s not what we’re doing today. But this webinar does aim to be a constructive conversation among colleagues to help journalists recognize the warning signs of potential burnout, and also to access some tools to help take care of themselves and their colleagues.
So, a couple of housekeeping things. I’ll introduce all the panelists at once. We’ll hear from them in turn during the first half hour of this webinar. In the second half hour, your questions and answers, of course. We’ve already received some terrific, and frankly very heartfelt questions in the RSVP process. But please, as the discussion continues, please feel free to add more of them in the chat. We’ll get to them as many as we can. You’re also welcome to tweet using @CoveringClimate, and hashtag #CCNOW. And at the end of the hour, we’ll ask a small favor if you will complete a very short survey. It will take you two minutes, just about our webinars, and what things we should be thinking about tackling in the future.
Now, please join me and give a warm virtual Welcome to our panelists. First, Dr. Jasmine MacDonald is a lecturer in the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University in Melbourne, Australia. She’s published numerous peer reviewed articles about journalists and emotional stress and fatigue. And a very special thank you to Dr. MacDonald for agreeing to get up at four o’clock in the morning her time to be with us here today. Second, Brian Kahn, he’s the managing editor at Earther, the digital environmental new site of GO Media. We’re proud to say that Earther has long been an exemplary partner at Covering Climate Now. If you’re not following their work, you need to check it out right away. And finally, last but certainly not least, Jarrett Hill. Jarrett Hill is an independent journalist and TV commentator who specializes in the intersection of politics and pop culture from an intersectional point of view. You’ll often see him interviewed on CNN and MSNBC and other national outlets. He’s also the president of the National Association of Black Journalists of Los Angeles.
We’re going to start with Dr. MacDonald, who will take us through roughly a seven-minute presentation of her research about journalists and emotional stress, then I will talk to Brian and Jarrett about their own experiences as a journalist. We’ll hear once quickly, again, from Dr. MacDonald, reacting to them. And then the second half hour, again, as I say, will be all your questions and answers. We thank you all so much for being part of this. Usually, these webinars are talking about a specific issue, whether it be the elections, or racial justice, and how to make the climate connection to them. This is a departure for us. And we can tell from the feedback that we’ve gotten from so many of you that all of us really need this. So, thank you for being here. Thank you for that bravery. And we look forward to a really illuminating and empowering conversation. Dr. MacDonald, take it away, please.
Dr. Jasmine MacDonald: Thanks so much, Mark. And thanks, everybody, for having me here to have this chat today. So, I’m just going to share some slides as we go through because some of the terminology might be a little unfamiliar. Already, so let’s start with a definition of what burnout is. And I’m just going to move your lovely faces so I can see. So, we’re talking about a syndrome resulting from unmanaged chronic occupational stresses. And this builds up over an extended period of time. There’s three aspects to this. I’ll look at them in more detail on the next slide, exhaustion, cynicism, and professional inefficacy. But the key thing that I want you to have to think about here is the relational transaction aspect.
So with burnout, the key stresses, the things that really build us and can cause distress are those things that are inter personal. As I go through my slides, we’re going to stop and check the chat box. But what I want to do is pose some questions for you to reflect on your own experiences and maybe what you’re observing in your own newsroom. So, here what I want you to think about is what are those groups of people and categories of people that you in interact with that can bring stress into your daily work? And think about the relative level of stress there. Is it more stressful for you the experiences that you have discussing with your manager as opposed to sources that you might work with? What about your colleagues or even interaction that you might have online or otherwise with your audience.
So, our three aspects of burnout, first exhaustion, this is ongoing exposure to stressors with little to no rest time. Often leaves people feeling overextended and depleted of physical and emotional resources. A second aspect cynicism is really a reaction to that exhaustion. It’s excessively detached and callous response to parts of the job and in particular to the people that we interact with through our day to day work. Now, the interesting thing with this is that cynicism results in things like hostility, lack of empathy, and detachment. And of course, those kinds of things are the qualities that tend to attract social support to us. And social support is one of the real key buffering factors that’s going to help bring down those symptoms of burnout. A third component is professional inefficacy. So, it is these earlier two things starting to lead to less productivity at work. But probably more importantly, this bias that we might start to get ourselves in a way that we think that the products that we’re developing and putting together isn’t confident or it’s not as good as it should be.
I want you to have a think about how common some of these things are in your own experiences and what you might have observed in other people, and some of the signs and symptoms that you’ve observed in yourself. I’ve got a slide that I want to talk through some example. So burnout typically has a range of symptom responses that are emotional. Things like temper tantrums, over trivial things, when really little things that wouldn’t usually bother just really start to build up and you have a reaction to them. Feeling guilty for resting or doing pleasurable things. Cognitively, all those kind of thinking patterns or experiences that we might have. People tend to have difficulty in making decisions or staying focused, and a growing tendency to think negatively. The behavioral signs we tend to see. Imbalance between work, family, recreation, and hobbies, or difficulty even getting out of bed in the morning. And physiologically, some of the stuff that comes along with burnout are muscle tension, headache, backache, and tiredness, and just this general sense of running on empty.
In terms of journalists, generally, some of the contributing factors are being younger, female gender with fewer years of journalism experience working in smaller organizations because this is about workload and resources. Editors and reporters seem to experience higher levels of burnout than those in other roles. And particularly groups that are in non-management positions experience elevated levels of burnout. Some other factors that we want to look out for are increased instances of where your work life rolls over into your family life and vice versa. Elevated workloads, reduce capacity for innovation and autonomy, those things that spark your passion in journalism, low levels of perceived organizational support, and then a range of other factors all on the lower end.
So, when we have people with lower levels of income involvement in the work that they’re doing like an individual contribution, key cohesion, task orientation, and also physical comfort in the workplace. But what we’re talking about here as well is a group of journalists with a specific focus, which is climate, and some of the issues that are unique to this group are these cognitive aspects that might contribute to an experience of psychological distress. So being aware of a large, complex global problem, seeing climate problems is overwhelming and urgent, carrying the burden of knowledge that society as a whole is either unable or unwilling to face. There’s prolonged attention on disturbing and negative information, high levels of investment and unrelenting commitment to an issue. It’s really those people who are so passionate and committed to their work that tend to have a higher risk of burnout when the organization is set up to not give resources in time for it. Knowing that our fellow human beings and our way of life has both unwitting and intentional negative consequences, and knowing that society as a whole is disconnected and not taking action.
So, as I’m going through, I’m wondering which of these things might be resonating with you and if there’s other aspects of the coverage of climate that you do that might be particularly impactful? I want to touch on just a couple of other key points briefly. Firstly, the experience that some people might be having in this domain of existential dread. When the experiences that you might have in the work that you’re doing leads you to question the value, meaning, and purpose of life. This is going to be associated with psychological distress. Also, eco grief. So, the psychological distress associated with the losses that we individually or collectively experience as a result of the climate crisis. And then finally, something that goes across the work that I do with journalists outside of burnout and trauma more broadly is technology. The constant reminders of in this context, the climate crisis, every time you might pick up your smartphone, or the constant deadlines that you might have. So, this is all going to be exacerbating the experience.
Just want to finish up my section here by talking about this stress, diathesis-stress model. So over the last 12 to 18 months, if you’ve started to feel like, you know what, my work has always been challenging. This is a demanding job. But the last 12 to 18 months has been particularly difficult. This might be a way for you to appreciate what could be happening for you. So, if we take the metaphor of a glass, and the daily stressors accumulate as water being added to that glass. Burnout occurs when we’re going to have that glass overflowing. And what we want to do is take into that cup where we can.
So, we’ve got this in levels. This first level in the bottom of the glass is what everyone individually brings to their cup. The genetic cognitive and behavioral predispositions that we might have to psychological distress and physical poor health. Your personal history, you might have a trauma background, or other things that you’re bringing along. Everyday stressors, like just being cut off from traffic. Don’t underestimate how these daily things build up. And then the things we talked about as journalists and occupation, workload, deadlines, work on conflict, and the elevated risk of trauma exposure and reaction that journalists have.
And then to just prove that climate journalism, those things we talked about there, all these things start to fill the glass. And finally, COVID-19 as the cherry on top. Just when we have all these potential risk factors, on top of that we have this ever pervasive pandemic that we’re living through. So, you might just have… I’m finishing up this section now. You might just have a think about what are the things that fill your glass and personally reflect on that because they could be things to focus on in terms of taking your own rest and recovery? Okay.
Mark Hertsgaard: Okay, so thank you, Dr. MacDonald. We’re going to… I’m now going to ask first, Brian, and then Jarrett, a couple of questions here and relating to all that. First, Brian, you and your colleagues at Earther have actually written about emotional burnout for journalists in general, and climate journalists and therapists, in particular. So what made you as an editor either assign or at least greenlight those stories? And how do the perspectives that your stories describe, how do those compare to what we just heard Dr. MacDonald talk about?
Brian Kahn: I mean, it’s journalists often don’t want to put themselves as part of the story. You want to be a little bit outside of it, but I think that when it comes to these issues, I mean, we’re part of society at the end of the day, and this is a very real thing that affects a very wide range of professional journalists, but also professionals in other fields as well. I mean, whether it’s firefighters, other frontline responders, people that are living in these frontline communities. These are folks that all experience their own forms of grief, anxiety, burnout, etc., etc., from being on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
So to me, it was really important that we start that conversation. I mean, this webinar is a great way to continue that conversation, but we need to talk about this stuff more so that we can figure out how to work through it. And in looking through those slides, it was just like, “Oh, wow, this is…” I saw someone in the chat type this was like straight from their brain. I felt like it was just a window into the daily, and weekly, and monthly emotional feelings that I have on a regular basis cycling through them and watching that cup fill up and overflow and finding ways to offload it here and there. It was extremely relatable, and I think that, that-
Mark Hertsgaard: Yeah, you know that segue. Sorry, go ahead.
Brian Kahn: No, go ahead, Mark.
Mark Hertsgaard: I was going to say that segues into my next question, Brian, which is that… And I don’t mean to intrude here so you can tell me to back off if you wish, but it strikes me that you’re an editor. So, that means part of your job is to be a manager. And that includes not just working with and helping your reporters do the best possible job that they can do. But also recognizing when they might be, the reporters who work for you, when they might be at risk of burning out, and then helping them to avoid that outcome. But as you just said about journalists being part of society editors are people, too. And as an editor who focuses on climate change, and other emotionally triggering subjects, I’m just curious, who do you turn to, to avoid your own emotional burnout?
Brian Kahn: I mean, I’m lucky enough to have a very strong support network at Earther. We’re part of a larger series of sites, and it’s actually really amazing to feel the support of our editor-in-chief who runs Gizmodo, which is the text that we’re part of, as well as other folks in our staff. So, that’s certainly one avenue where I find that just in the workplace alone there’s that support to do the work that’s important, but also realize that when you’re writing about this stuff, it creates a different layer of stress than… This isn’t… I think it’s like our consumer tech team does great work, but it’s a little bit different than the work that they’re doing. And so, there’s this recognition of give and take of how do we make sure that we’re balancing me as an editor, our writers work in this full-time with the fact that we have other staff to come and fill the gaps.
I mean, ultimately, it’s also about not just the people that I turn to, but also just the things that I turn to, to get away from this for even a little bit. My wife has been really lovely, and after she’s seen or she’s experienced the burnout through me, and she’s like, “You got to step away from the computer.” We got to knock off work at five o’clock most days. We got to go for a walk around Central Park to clear our heads and that’s going to really help. And that is 100% been the case where sometimes you need that person right there in your life to help you check out and find the things that for you and take a little bit of the stress off.
Mark Hertsgaard: I can also say to people that Brian has a wonderful sense of humor, or at least taste that is similar to my own. So, if you’re not following him on Twitter, follow him on Twitter, he somehow manages to find a way to make very funny jokes about climate change. Sometimes drawing on Simpsons and other cartoon drawings. So, I mean, is that part of it, Brian? I’m just curious, or were you doing it separate from that?
Brian Kahn: You got to laugh. If you’re crying, sometimes turned into laughing. I do think that that is a way to deal… It’s a coping mechanism, though, right? It does help to set the absurdity in some ways of the situation. Not take and trivialize it. There are people dying, suffering, climate change is 100% bad. But sometimes a way to cope with it is to find either that dark humor or just something to help break up the real down the dumps darkest thoughts that you have, and find ways to push through and report the stories that really matter.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks, Brian Kahn at Earther, and I’m going to turn now to Jarrett, Jarrett Hill. Jarrett, we mentioned in the intro that you’re the president of the National Association of Black Journalists out of Los Angeles, California. Could you… I mean, you wrote a great piece where you surveyed a number of your colleagues in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and other things related to racial justice and talked to some of your colleagues about how they were navigating the extra emotional stress of all that. Did you see… If you could just perhaps summarize that for those who haven’t seen that that piece? And we’ll put that piece in the chat, by the way. Were there shifts in the collective black journalists that you came across in your reporting there? How does COVID and climate and other trauma that are surrounding all of the racial justice trauma, how does that all intersect?
Jarrett Hill: Yeah. So, first of all, thank you all for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to speak to everyone. I’ve found that when I did that story, oddly enough, I wrote that story last July. And this is the second Zoom conversation I’m having about that piece today. And so, it’s coming back up again as a conversation that was really born out of me recognizing the ways that I was being affected from a mental health perspective, and how I was coping, if you will. And so, I started to think I’ve had all these conversations with various different friends and colleagues, but also recognizing if I’m feeling this, and my friends are feeling this, my guess is that a lot of other journalists are going through this feeling of how am I going to get through this? What do I need to be doing? How do I need to be changing the ways that I’m engaging my work and my life?
I saw someone on social media say we’re not working from home, we’re living at work, and I was like, “Oh, my God.” That really stung in a different way. And so, when I did that piece, it was really asking folks, how are you handling… How did you handle getting through June? We all know June was a lot of uprising last year. And for me at the intersection of being Black and queer, being a Black queer person in the month with all of these uprisings and pride it was like every other day there was a panel, an article, a cable news hit, there was constant conversation about these things, and it was it was really wearing on myself and a lot of my queer colleagues.
And so, I ended up reaching out to various different folks and finding that the ways in which they were engaging their work was not always healthy, and asking folks how are you doing? How are you taking care of yourself? And multiple people said, “I don’t think I’m doing a good job of it.” I think that the honesty of that was really, really great and valuable because so many people came back later and said, “I felt seen in that. I felt heard in that.” And that people were saying a lot of what I was feeling, and as Jasmine was running through her data you were talking about what are the different things that we’re exposed to at work that that can contribute to exhaustion?
It brought back to me this piece that I saw last month. Actually, in the middle of July, they were talking about this new data that came out from the Future Forum, which is put together by Slack saying that 3% of Black Americans want to go back to work in the workplace, 3%. That is extraordinary 97% of Black folks don’t want to go back to work in the workplace, which says to you something about the intersection of race and work because 21% of our White counterparts wanted to go back to work in the workplace. And that’s not just journalists, that’s throughout the entire workforce. There being a seven time difference between those different things shows you that there’s something different about being Black in the workplace, and I don’t want to speak for other folks. But being Black or Brown or otherwise marginalized in the workplace has a lot to do with the way that you engage your work, how you feel at work, and how you feel when you leave work.
Mark Hertsgaard: Jarrett, I want to take that one step further. One of the things I was very struck by in your piece, and look, it’s an uncomfortable topic, perhaps, but we’re going to go right out it is that a lot of Black journalists in that piece, and I’ve heard it elsewhere, too, frankly, from other colleagues. After the murder of George Floyd and all the protests in the street, they felt like they suddenly became every White friend’s or White journalist’s colleagues, that’s my Black colleague. And I’m going to first virtue signal by saying I have a Black colleague, but also I’m going to be asking that Black colleague, “Hey, can you give me some insight into this story? Am I approaching it correctly and all that?” And on the one hand, I suppose that’s a laudatory thing. You want White people to try to be anti-racist, and to learn, and so forth. But at another side, the people you interviewed said, “I got exhausted from it.” I finally had to say, “Look, I can’t do this anymore. So you take us through that, and how that feels to you?
Jarrett Hill: Yeah, one of the things that’s been most interesting over the last year is that every person of color has been expected to be an expert in diversity and inclusion, right? Simply being Black makes you a diversity and inclusion expert. There are people who studied diversity and inclusion. There are people who work in diversity and inclusion every day that do that work. I think that Black folks, queer folks, Brown folks are all expected to have the answers. And it’s like, “I’m just Black. I don’t have a degree in that. I haven’t studied the ways in which the workplace interferes with all of those different things.”
For myself, working with the National Association of Black Journalists, both nationally, and here in Los Angeles, we do a lot of diversity and inclusion work. So I am uniquely equipped in that way, but for most folks, that is not the day to day work. And so, to go to work and be asked, “Well, what should we be doing differently? Or is this okay to say, or should I be approaching this differently?” A lot of time the answer to that is, I don’t know. Why would I know the answer to that, and it speaks to the ways in which we need to be thinking better and more smartly. Smartly, is a word, right? Better and smarter about the ways that we engage our marginalized folks.
I always say that there’s two different kinds of folks when we think about marginalized groups. There’s the person who will say, “Ask me the question that you think is stupid. Ask me what you hope to learn about because I’d rather you ask a stupid question and get a good answer than for you to just hold on to a really stupid idea.” There’s another group that says, “It is not my job to educate you. Google is free, and you can find all of this information in other places.” Both of those camps are right, and so the person that wants to help or wants to answer your question, they are just as valid as the person who does not want to unpack their trauma for you, or does not want to have to relive their experience for your understanding, or does not want to have to unpack everything that they’ve gone through for the sake of your education. And so, when you are approaching these moments, there is appreciation and respect for the idea that you want to learn and be better. But there also has to be consideration for what that costs the person that you’re requesting that out of.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks so much. That’s Jarrett Hill. He’s commentator with MSNBC, CNN, and is the president of the National Association of Black Journalists in Los Angeles. Quickly, Dr. MacDonald, do you have any specific reactions. Don’t feel obligated, but any specific thoughts that are triggered by what Brian Kahn and Jarrett Hill just said or should we go straight to the Q&A.
Dr. Jasmine MacDonald: I have a lot that I would love to just keep talking about. But a couple of things that I wanted to highlight. First, when Jarrett talks about that marginalize experience, we need to really think about that in terms of this whole other glass. This raises all of the aspects outside of burnout in terms of intergenerational trauma, that representation of experience. We used to do this thing in the ’90s with psychology, which was people are exposed to trauma or stress, they have to debrief, that’s the right thing to do. And that actually caused increased distress to people. Some people want to talk and talk things through and publicly process. And for some people, it’s a private experience. So, to have that collective trauma experience, and be expected to represent a group of people, and it’s this complex overlap of what’s my individual experience, and how I feel about these situations, and also being expected to represent a group of people. Thus, that’s really something that I found quite profound and important for this topic when Jarrett was speaking, amongst many other things.
I want to touch on Brian’s mention of use of humor. And across my research in trauma more broadly, and burnout, this is something that is super adaptive in journalists. Please keep using that humor and dark humor is okay. Because you’re not doing it with trauma survivors in front of you. You’re doing it to cope and bond with other people. It’s when journalists tend to have the cover story independently, that’s when they’re at most risk. Being able to cover stories together as a crew, and use that humor to bond and bring in that social support. Yeah, that’s definitely worth highlighting.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks so much. So, what I hear there is, folks always be open to whatever somebody else’s situation is, if they want to talk about it great. If they don’t, we need to respect that as well. I’m going to turn to the Q&A questions that have come in and again feel free to keep adding them in the chat. Here’s one that I think this is probably best for you, Brian Kahn. How do you choose what actions to take daily in your workplace among all the things that are pouring into your inbox to deal with a red hot emergency, which, of course is what the climate crisis is? So how do you prioritize your own actions in the workplace in the face of an emergency situation?
Brian Kahn: So, I mean, it was interesting, your talk in the intro, Mark, about this idea of newsrooms shrinking, more responsibilities being placed on your shoulders, etc., etc. And that’s definitely the case for us. I mean, frankly, it’s one of the things that I’m sure many journalists can relate to, and one thing that’s typically acute for us with a team of two full-time staff writers, myself, and various helping hands from here and there. So, it’s always about, I think, for us, basically trying to find your, A, the stories that are most important to tell. Prioritizing those as whatever they might be. I mean, there’s any number of criteria on that from breaking bad news, or whatever the administration might be doing to the fact that the world seems to be constantly on fire. Literally, nowadays, you’re picking the right things to do to tell that.
When it comes to balancing that though, I think there also is an important thing to… I’d say there’s an important process for me to go through, which is one that it can lead to a lot of apathy and feeling like there’s no way through it. And I think that’s something that’s really helped me is try to like focus on how do we turn that apathy into empathy for the people that are experiencing these conditions on the front lines. And certainly that was the case even last year with the protests around George Floyd and things like that where it was like, “What is the way that we can contribute to this discussion meaningfully?” I mean, can we first of all? If we can’t, that’s okay.
But for me, it’s always about trying to find those ways to make this a story that’s human and relatable while also recognizing that we do have those competing constraints of when news is breaking, you got to be on the breaking news, and that’s a big part of the process. So, it’s balancing all those things. And then also realizing that some days you might not have any. You got to do your best and be cognizant of the time when you need to step away and take care of yourself as well. That’s something that I try to convey to our writers as well is that when you need a day to work on a longer term project, or you just can’t be part of this grinding news cycle that it feels like we’re never getting out of, that’s okay. We’ll find a way to cover it, and you got to do what you got to do to take care of yourself first and foremost.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks. That’s Brian Kahn of Earther. Here’s a question that I’m going to alter slightly because I think it applies not just to the difficulties of covering climate, but also to, especially racial justice, and probably COVID as well. So, Jarrett, I’m hoping you can handle this one. Here’s the question. Sometimes I find myself frozen like a PTSD response during major climate events, such as the recent heatwave, which interferes with my ability to cover those events. How do you break through that wall and find new ways to tell the story? Jarrett, I think one could ask that same question about I find myself frozen with PTSD during major racial justice events, when yet another Black or Brown person has been murdered by police.
Jarrett Hill: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m kidding. It’s been a really difficult thing. I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy talking about this to be quite honest with you. At the top of the year, and I’ve written about this and talked about it on our show. At the top of the year, going through the January 6th insurrection, going through a second impeachment, a transition of presidents, and the election refutation, all of those different things. As a person who covers politics, that was the bottom for me. I was burnt out the most I’ve ever been at that time to the point at which my depression was at its worst. I was depressed in a way that I had never felt before I was having suicidal ideation, I was it was a really, really difficult time for me.
My doctor, and my therapist said to me that the ways that I was starting to engage news, I couldn’t watch news anymore. When I turned on news, I would have like a physical tightness in my chest, and I would realize, “Wow, I maybe I should turn this off.” She was saying, “It sounds like you’re having some post traumatic response to watching news and things like that. And so for me, what has been important is taking a break. As a freelancer, I find myself not taking formal vacation. I don’t tend to have like the same break structure that other people do. I don’t have a benefits package in the same way that I would if I were back in a corporate news job like I’ve been before.
And so, this year, I’ve made a benefits package for myself, every week, every quarter, excuse me, I’m taking a week off, and it’s been difficult. I also feel really privileged and entitled to even say that. But Jasmine, you in Australia can understand that taking four weeks off out of the year is still a very low bar by the world standards. And so, when we’re looking at these different instances and feeling paralyzed, and not able to even engage these stories, because of the ways that they’re impacting us, I think that we have to be okay with taking a break, with stepping away, with not engaging. And even if we are still like in the trenches of having to report every day, we have to be more thoughtful about what we’re doing in our downtime.
I believe Jasmine was talking about this earlier about the guilt of not working, of taking rest. And that was something that we talked about so much in that piece when I was interviewing all of the different folks. The idea of disconnecting and not being on social media and not watching the news. That’s really difficult as a journalist because the job is to be informed. My job is the intersection of politics and pop culture. So, I’m trying to know what’s happening on TV and on social media, but also in Washington, and dealing with… You know what I mean? All of these different things are always happening, but there’s also a lot of value in turning it off. Whether it’s for an hour, whether it’s for an evening, whether it’s for a day, or for a week, or what have you. You’ve got to find ways to disconnect from it and that guilt voice will get quieter and quieter, I promise. You will start to recognize the ways in which you’re able to help yourself in taking some time. You’re muted, Mark. The words that we all hate in the era of Zoom.
Mark Hertsgaard: I’m a pro. I shouldn’t be doing that. Don’t be afraid to turn this off.
Jarrett Hill: I do it all the time.
Mark Hertsgaard: That’s what Jarrett Hill just told us. I was preempting that advice.
Jarrett Hill: Nice, nice.
Mark Hertsgaard: Anyway, Jasmine MacDonald, I know you have a couple more slides. But let me intro the segue to that with another question here from someone who is a journalist who says, “Look, I know I need some mental health counseling, I can’t afford it. Where do I go to get affordable mental healthcare?” And I’m not going to say where this person is from. So, I don’t know the situation. Obviously, it’s different in Australia than the United States or any other country. There’s people on this call from all over the world. But if you could maybe comment a little bit about that. And then if you if there is time to take us through those three slides quickly, but quickly, because there’s a lot of other questions here I want to get through.
Dr. Jasmine B. …: Yeah, sure. Thanks, Mark. Yeah, I guess I want to preface by saying we are going to have these differences in mental health support from country to country. But I want to encourage you to maybe in your search terms have a look at sliding fees. There’s a lot of health professionals and psychs who will offer a fee based on means. So, there are those options there. I guess one thing that collectively might be really useful as a starting point is the Dart Center. They offer a lot of resources around trauma support and mental health for journalists. The best place to start is your GP, your physician, they might be able to recommend in your area someone that does do some kind of sliding fee where you won’t be charged full fees.
Mark Hertsgaard: Okay.
Dr. Jasmine MacDonald: I hope that’s useful.
Mark Hertsgaard: Do you want to you want to bring up your slides? Go ahead, Jarrett, quickly please.
Jarrett Hill: I just want to also mention because I’m completely with you on this one, Jasmine. There’s also a lot of different apps that are helpful for this now here in the states and probably in other countries as well. We have things like BetterHelp and the various different kinds of therapy apps that are a lot less expensive than having a therapist, and they can also connect you to someone really quickly within probably two days, I believe, is how they do it at BetterHelp, and I’m not sure about the others, but it’s a lot less expensive. And if you can’t afford it through your insurance, especially if you’re a freelancer and don’t have insurance or have limited insurance. Those are some really great useful resources.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks, Jarrett. And we will put those if we can in the chat, but if not, we will have them on our website. And we’ll be sending out a report on this whole webinar afterwards. We’ll be sure to include all of that. Okay, Dr. MacDonald, please take it to your last panel, for your last slides there.
Dr. Jasmine MacDonald: Yeah, Thanks, Jarrett. That’s a really great addition. I turned my video off because we’ve gotten some feedback that the audio was a bit glitchy. So, alrighty, first things first, let’s… Even I’m going to look at individual coping, please let’s say up front, burnout is not an individual issue. It’s an organizational and a workplace issue. It needs to be addressed and acknowledged within the workplace. But there’s some things that I want to highlight first around individual coping.
So, it’s important to focus on daily recovery from work rather than working harder or working more. This goes back to what Jarrett said. We can have the ability to keep building up our resilience… Not our resilience, the work that we do and our bodies will push through. But we’re always having a stress reaction and increased hormones and things that come with physical and psychological wear and tear. So, you need to give your body the opportunity to return to baseline, to be better able to face the next day’s challenges, and focus on the quality of recovery more so than the time spent recovering. I noticed one of the questions that came through was I rested in evening, but I still don’t feel like I am okay for work the next day.
Just for time, I’m going to skip to the next slide and more than happy to make these slides available for people to look at afterwards. But there’s four broad areas that we should be looking at in terms of types of recovery and they suit different people and situations in different ways. So, one is psychological detachment. This is just doing whatever you can to not think about work. Another is relaxation, to take a walk in nature, listen to music, or read a book. Another is mastery. This is often underestimated. You are motivated passionate people, and want to make a difference. It’s hard to switch that off and relax. So, instead look at things where you’re developing a specific skill that preoccupies your intelligent and active minds like learn a language or pursue sports and hobbies. And then finally, if you’re someone who’s experiencing a sense of lack of control at work then finding things at home that you can control and setting up things the way that you want to do them can be really effective.
If you are a workaholic, then relaxation is not going to be useful. Just laying on the couch and watching Netflix is not going to help switch your brain off. You want to look at things like sports or mastery tasks. If you’re really exhausted, then going home and going, “Well, now I need to learn a language,” is not going to be effective. You need the couch and Netflix. So, just pick and choose what’s going to be effective for you. But I guess what we really need to think about is what can we do in the newsroom? It’s really important to listen and acknowledge when staff bring up workload stress, and ensure that they don’t feel like their burnout is a flaw of their own. It’s their perfectionism or their individual flaw is actually something that needs to be considered systemically.
Take a break, if possible, or rotate staff that are covering issues that are stressful or traumatic. Foster a sense of solidarity across team members of all roles. It’s very common in newsrooms for hierarchies to form based on things like what role people might be in, and these social divisions do lead to an elevated chance of distress. And related to this is where possible, encourage collaboration and teamwork to improve access to social support. This is also pragmatic. More people working on a story [inaudible 00:46:32] is going to end up in a better product, and it’s going to mean, especially if going out into the field where it’s a particularly stressful or dangerous situation actually means more safety as well. And consider if there’s a gap between the organization’s values and goals and resources and what expectations staff have because disillusionment coming into a workplace, it really is a problem associated with burnout. Okay, and that’s, and all I have. Thanks, Mark.
Mark Hertsgaard: Okay, thanks, Dr. MacDonald. Here’s a couple of questions. I’m going to start with Brian, if I may. And I’m going to smush two of them together because they both relate to being a manager or an editor. Here’s the question. One of my big frustrations is when there’s a new story that clearly has a climate angle, but climate is not or barely included in the story. How do you work with colleagues who just don’t get it or with editors refuse to do it? Now, obviously, that’s not the case at Earther. But you’ve been in other newsrooms. Can you talk about that? And related to that is something that another question has come across and this is anonymous. In the midst of all that, how do we deal with the fact that many managers still assume 150% productivity and focus and all of that at all times despite the fact that internally, you’re dealing with climate despair and knowing too much about the climate emergency? So, both sides of that question, Brian.
Brian Kahn: So, I think I’ve been lucky enough to work in newsrooms where that, people not wanting to include climate isn’t a problem. It’s the opposite, which is not a problem, it’s actually a great thing, which is that people want to do more climate reporting. So, I’ve been lucky enough to be approached by other editors at our sites, other writers wanting to actually contribute to climate and do more on that front, which is really wonderful to see. I know that’s maybe an anomaly compared to some other newsrooms, and there are certainly news stories that I read even on our sites that I’m like, “They could have had a climate angle to it. Or you could have just thrown in a sentence or two to add to that.”
So, my experience so far has been the plus side, which is that people actually want to collaborate and work on this more. And I think that actually speaks to the benefit of having experts on staff, who people want to come through to understand this. I mean, and that’s… [inaudible 00:48:56] might realize, in some ways in the newsroom it’s kind of an ambassador, a climate ambassador, so to speak, to convince folks that, “Hey, this is a part of your story,” or, “Hey, here’s a resource that you might want to do to connect with this.” I think that that’s certainly one way to work through that is rather than being, I guess, totally using the stick to be like, “Hey, you didn’t cover this. What the heck?” Instead, you’re the indicator of saying, “Hey, I have these great resources for you. I’d love to be a resource for your reporters, you as an editor, whatever it is to give you those one or two lines of context that you really need to include, or you usually might want to include to inform your readers.”
I think that that’s been a really effective tactic, and it’s led to some interesting collaborations as well. And seeing Jasmine slides actually, the idea of collaboration really speaks to me, in general, and I think that’s what’s great about what Covering Climate Now is doing is bringing folks together to tell these stories and carry the weight together. So, I think that that’s one of the most important ways that we can as climate editors or climate experts in newsrooms bring that story more to everyone and not just make it a one desk kind of thing.
Mark Hertsgaard: Yeah, thanks for You know that Brian, that is definitely one of the goals of Covering Climate Now is to build a sense of community within those of us in the journalistic profession who recognize just how crucial the climate story is and how long so many newsrooms, especially in the US mainstream media, how terribly underplayed that story? How about, here’s a question. I’m not sure, you all can decide. Maybe it’s Dr. MacDonald’s should do this, but Jarrett, I’d also be curious about what you think. How do you share your own concerns about your fatigue with managers without coming across as weak or ungrateful or somebody who they maybe should think about replacing?
Jarrett Hill: Dr. MacDonald, you have doctor in your name. So, if you want to go first, you can.
Mark Hertsgaard: Go for it, Jarrett. Go for it.
Jarrett Hill: Mark, I say this with love. I’m going to wholeheartedly disagree with something that you said at the beginning, and I think we’re going to have different perspectives on this. But over the last year, I’ve completely divorced myself from the idea of having to have 150% of output. I’ve had to really step back with that and create different boundaries for myself, from small things to big things. Small things like my email signature says, “I strive to not answer emails before 9:30 AM or after 7:30 PM.” I don’t always accomplish that. That’s why I use the verb strive. But I also have been really decided about the boundaries that I’m creating, with my team, with my assistant, with my producers, with the different groups that I work with because we have to create a different culture, and that takes a lot of work.
I think that when we’re talking to our managers, or our editors, or our colleagues, or our subordinates, we have to start developing a different culture and understanding around the ways that we talk to people about their work. I think that we have to appreciate that all of these different stories affect different people in different ways. We all have different traumas, and different triggers, and different elements that are impacting us from day to day, and Mark, I completely understand the perspective of where you’re coming from, especially having been a day to day reporter, having hosted a daily radio show and things like that, you’re always expected to have more and more and more and more.
But I think, after the last year and some change of going through the first elements of this pandemic, and I like to say we’re not post-pandemic, we’re in the midst of the pandemic. I think people have a much more open understanding of what it costs for people to do the work that they do every day. And I think it’s something that if your manager is not understanding it, you need to be having more conversations with your manager and your HR. I think that newsrooms and all of our companies, but especially our newsrooms need to be having more open conversation about mental health and being able to create a different culture. Muted.
Mark Hertsgaard: I don’t understand. I didn’t even do it that time. I’m not sure what’s happening here. It’s Gremlins. Just to be clear that 150,000 or 150%, that’s not me speaking. That is the questioner was asking about that expectation on the part of so many managers. And this is a theme that keeps coming up in our questions, and you just referenced it, too. Brian, I’m going to ask you, because you’re a manager, and here’s another version of that story, of that question, rather. During the 9/11 attacks, the questioner says I was doing a lot of coverage of the environmental effects on people working on the rubbish pile. I felt like I was there with them. It was incredibly traumatic hearing survivor stories, but what was also difficult was dealing with editors who weren’t always as empathetic about the trauma that their journalists were going through. So, question, any advice on dealing with editors who might be less than sympathetic or empathetic? How do you deal with them? Is it if you don’t get… If your direct editor is not listening to you, you go over their head? Of course, there’s risks to that as well. So, Brian, can you speak to that from the managerial aspect, please?
Brian Kahn: Yeah, I mean, into the 150% thing, too, I will add, I mean, I wholeheartedly agree with Jarrett about setting boundaries. That’s something that we’ve actually done as… I guess I consider myself a middle management, and recently, we actually implemented a hard out by five o’clock rule in our newsroom, which is not normal journalism practice by any means, but it has really changed the complexion of just you can tell staff, and I can tell by myself that I feel a lot less stress in that regards. So, I think that there’s a lot to be said of we’re still just as productive, or however you want to put it, but it has allowed people to reclaim a little bit of their personal time in their personal lives.
I think there’s that aspect of it. But I mean, in terms of the empathy or finding editors that will listen or care, I will also strongly advocate for one thing, which we have in our newsroom, which is a union. And that union has been instrumental in getting workplace protections. It’s also really powerful way to ensure that we’re all working with each other in good faith. And so, it might not… A union in the connection of an individual’s mental health or our crappy editor might seem maybe somewhat tenuous, but I think that it’s there, and it certainly has helped us in terms of advocating for employees to have fair rights, to take the time off that they need. It’s built a really strong sense of solidarity in our newsroom as well. And so, if you’re not getting that support from your direct editor, there are literally 150 plus people on our union. And so, you can find ways to work with them and find support networks throughout the… Not just our site, but across the entire network of folks in our newsroom. So, I think that that’s a really important avenue to consider as we’re weighing both coping with the climate crisis and burnout, but also finding support from other quarters outside of just the people you know in the direct chain of command.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks, Brian. So we’re coming to the end of the hour. We have time for one more question here, and then we’ll do the outro. And this is something that is, I think, relevant to all of us, even though the questioner says I work remotely, my company is in another state. But of course, all of us are working oftentimes remotely now. And the question continues, so I rarely interact with anyone except via email, sometimes telephone. In addition to news fatigue, therefore, my work life is pretty lonely and isolating. So do you have any tips under those circumstances for dealing with that loneliness and isolation? And then the attendant, emotional fatigue from everything else we’ve been talking about today? Dr. MacDonald, please?
Dr. Jasmine MacDonald: Yeah, I think sometimes it’s looking for unexpected colleagues. It might not be the people who are in your organization, but doing things that you’re doing more broadly. Like, for instance, connecting on Twitter to the right people, and the right threads can be a way for you to have your own water cooler conversations and debrief and realize that it’s not just you. So thinking of your organization is really good, and you want to make those connections. But seeing that you’re part of this broader network, and how to connect to that can be tricky. Maybe Brian and Jarrett have some examples of how it’s good to do that as a journalist. That’s probably one that I would highlight.
Jarrett Hill: Yeah, I would follow that. I read a piece that was talking about the practical application of working from home every day. And I started to think about when I worked on the radio every day, and I’m watching time here, Mark. I know that we’re getting close to the end. But I remember when I worked on the radio every day, there was this guy that worked at one of the other stations in our building, in our conglomerate. And he always walked around in board shorts and flip flops, and his hair was always shaggy. I learned that he surfed every morning and I was like, “Who are you?” You know what I mean? Like, you’re a real person, but I would converse with him over at the water cooler, as I was getting my food out of the refrigerator.
I would talk to the ladies over in promo because they were right outside of our studio, and it was just good to see you. But I haven’t seen those people on almost two years now, and those little social interactions that you have with people that aren’t necessarily your friends, but they’re your colleagues or they’re the people that you just see along the way, we don’t have any of those interactions when we’re doing this. You might see that someone’s online on Slack or have a Zoom call and different things like that. But I think we have to figure out ways to be more intentional about having interactions with people that we are not getting right now.
I know for myself, sometimes that’s organizing a Zoom game night with friends or being able to have a little bit of a COVID bubble. I know for myself, I have a bubble that includes my best friends and their son who is my nephew and with my family members and different things like that because these interactions with the flip flop guy, I’m not going to be able to simulate that, and I didn’t have to be intentional about it either. And I think we just have to be thoughtful and intentional about how we can find new ways to interact with people. And people want to do that. I think you just have to ask them like, “Hey, let’s do something.” Especially as it seems like we’re probably going to be going back to some level of quarantine soon.
Mark Hertsgaard: We are social animals. We’re in the final minute. Brian, can you get the last word? 30 seconds, please.
Brian Kahn: Oh, man, no pressure. I mean, I think that these are all really good examples. I mean, honestly, one thing that I’ve started doing is just checking in with a couple folks on Twitter, journalists that I respect, admire, [inaudible 00:59:58], maybe we should get coffee some time. I think that these are… That’s the thing is if you’re feeling alone, chances are there are other people in that same boat, and they’re going to want to connect to you. Or maybe they have a great social life and they just still want to hang out because they’re friendly folks. It never hurts to reach out to people and just get together and see what happens. You never know who you can meet in real life and where it’ll take. And also, just being part of this event right here I think is a good example of just ways to find like-minded people that are thinking about these issues and want to connect and deal with it just as much as you.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you so much. And a special thank you to all three of you for being so honest and vulnerable about what can be emotionally intimate and difficult subjects. We are deeply in your debt. And thank you for all your constructive and thoughtful comments. Everyone who’s watching this, of course, I’ll repeat this will all be on the Covering Climate Now website. You will also be getting an email follow up from us that will have the video and a somewhat shortened transcript of the event. All of those resources that have been mentioned today will be available as well.
If you do have two minutes. and I mean it, just two minutes to spare. Please stay on here. I have a soft out and you can take the survey to help us understand at Covering Climate Now what else? What other topics you’d like to see us handle in these Talking Shop webinars in the future. So finally, my direct and deep personal thanks to Jarrett Hill, to Brian Kahn, to Dr. Jasmine MacDonald, all the way from Melbourne, Australia at now roughly 6:00 in the morning. We are deeply in your debt, especially Dr. MacDonald, and we thank all of you. Please come to the Covering Climate Now website. We are community here. We welcome you into it. Thank you for being with us today. I’m Mark Hertsgaard, and have a very pleasant day.