Self-Care for Black Journalists

In a news cycle filled with tragedy, much of it disproportionately affecting people of color, Black reporters and editors are reimagining coping strategies.

By Patrice Peck

Heat flushed Natelegé Whaley’s body as she wrote a news article about the shooting by police that killed Breonna Taylor. Ms. Whaley, a journalist, figured she was tired. Then came the mental fog, digestive issues and blurred vision. When these seemingly separate issues snowballed into a panic attack and a trip to the emergency room in late May, Ms. Whaley, 31, who lives in Brooklyn, connected the dots.

“I’m writing about the suffering of someone who looks like me,” she said. “We just keep going and going and going and going because we feel like that’s what we must do, and that’s not healthy.”

The news today is filled with grief, especially for Black journalists reporting on violence against Black people, socioeconomic disparities underscored by the coronavirus pandemic and racism in the workplace. The situation is complicated by the fact that often they are doing this work for publications where most of the staff is white.

“Black journalists, like nurses or psychotherapists or anyone else who regularly hears or views trauma narratives, may experience vicarious trauma, or distress that stems from repeated exposure to the trauma of others,” said Robin D. Stone, a licensed mental health counselor specializing in trauma-informed treatment. “They may feel especially vulnerable that the person on the respirator or in the violent video could be them or someone they love.” (Ms. Stone knows the world of reporting intimately: For more than 20 years, she was a journalist, including a stint at The New York Times.)

The conditions can be particularly challenging for freelancers, who cannot rely on a biweekly paycheck or corporate health insurance, Ms. Whaley said.

“Even though you’re getting paid, it really puts us in a vulnerable position while the company profits off the work that requires immense emotional and mental labor,” she said. “Yes, the stories need to be told. But no one is really thinking about whether Black freelancers have the resources they need to stay sane during this time.”

Addressing Trauma

Black Americans are underrepresented in American newsrooms; a Pew Research Center survey of data from 2013 to 2017 found that only 7 percent of newsroom employees are Black. (At The New York Times, 9 percent of newsroom employees are Black.) Often Black journalists are called upon to report and write specifically about issues within their own community, which may involve viewing imagery that depicts violence, hatred and death.

Many of them have begun speaking out about the importance of prioritizing mental health care and wellness. In the absence of employer-sponsored insurance and mental health services for freelancers, and in light of recent discussions on workplace burnout, many Black journalists are rethinking the work that is required to report on atrocities in Black communities.

“I feel like we’re still figuring it out,” Ms. Whaley said. “We’re just starting to have these open conversations about mental health because in the past Black journalists were just supposed to be happy just to be in this space, especially if you have a job at a major publication. It’s like everyone thinks that you’ve made it.”

Inundated with a nonstop stream of race-related news, today’s Black journalists are adopting a mix of traditional and informal practices to better care for and protect their own mental health and wellness.

“All Black Americans have some degree of PTSD,” said Dr. Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and expert in race-based stress and trauma. In the case of Black journalists, Dr. Williams referred to studies of being “repeatedly exposed to details of traumatic experiences in your line of work.”

“Being a journalist is not any different because you’re being constantly exposed to these gruesome details of horrific instances of racism,” she said. “So it’s just the same.”

To better manage on a day-to-day basis, Dr. Williams recommended a “toolbox of coping strategies” that includes seeking social support within one’s communities, briefly limiting one’s exposure to cues of racism, engaging with religious or spiritual practices, seeking distraction from cues of racism, and participating in restful and relaxing activities.

And how does one determine if and when they should take a break? Dr. Williams pointed to several examples of racial stress and trauma interfering with one’s daily functions, like being depressed or anxious for most of the day, or having trouble sleeping.

“When you see it affecting your quality of life, that’s a pretty good sign you should write stories about puppies or something,” she said.

But sometimes taking a break from writing means cutting off one’s main source of income, especially without the support of paid sick days or paid time off. Ms. Whaley proposed offering Black journalists fully-funded sabbaticals every to rest, recover and reset: “That would be a real reparation to me because we need it.”

“I want all Black journalists to know you deserve so much better,” she continued. “And I deserved better than what I gave myself and what this industry has given me.”

Coping Mechanisms

Julia Craven, 27, a reporter for Slate in Washington, D.C., has been reporting exclusively on racism since graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014. Two years into her career, the news cycle flooded with reports of hate crimes and white supremacist ideologies, fueled in part by the 2016 presidential election. There were also numerous stories of Black individuals who had been killed in police custody. Ms. Craven felt she could barely tread water. In each killed person, she would catch a glimpse of her loved ones: her brother, her boyfriend, her best friend, her sister and sometimes even herself.

“Everything seemed like it was constantly happening, so I went back into therapy,” Ms. Craven said. “I knew that I needed to develop some sort of self care system because if my mental health ain’t on point, then I can’t do my job.”

More recently, at her therapist’s suggestion, Ms. Craven has made a concerted effort to limit her exposure to the news on the weekends. The move has given her the space and time to focus on herself on days off and be more present when she is at work, particularly at a demanding time.

Dr. Williams said she frequently advises her Black clients, friends and even acquaintances to unplug from social media to recover from stress and recommends they not watch videos of Black people being harmed. “I don’t think journalists need to see these videos unless your job is to write a detailed account of how the person died, second by second,” she said.

But therapy and an escape from the news is a luxury to many, especially uninsured and freelance journalists, like Ms. Whaley. She said she tried seeing a therapist, but her funds were limited given her uneven employment and the cost of an in-network therapist through her health insurance.

“I couldn’t afford the therapy because I’m a freelancer and not a full-time staff writer with benefits,” she said. “But then I need to go to therapy to help cope with my freelance career.”

After Ms. Whaley’s panic attack, though, she pulled back from an assignment for her own well-being, and an editor sent her a link to the Black Journalists Therapy Relief Fund.

Sonia Weiser, 28, a white freelance writer based in Manhattan, started the relief fund through a GoFundMe page after witnessing an outpouring of calls for Black writers to cover racial violence, as well as the protests galvanized by the killing of George Floyd, often for relatively little compensation.

“It just felt rude and disrespectful to put the onus on Black journalists, especially when so much of the trauma incurred in the industry is because of white employers,” she said.

After she created the fund, people donated to meet the $20,000 goal and raised $32,000 within 48 hours. Ms. Weiser has since raised over $70,000, and has partnered with the International Women’s Media Foundation for additional support. They have provided microgrants to 84 applicants (the majority of whom don’t have health insurance that covers mental health expenses), matching nearly every person’s desired amount up to $2,000.

As one of the fund recipients, Ms. Whaley has received enough money to see a therapist — a Black woman, which was Ms. Whaley’s preference — twice a week for the next four to six months. (She sought more affordable psychotherapy sessions through Open Path Collective, a nonprofit organization providing affordable, in-office and online psychotherapy services ranging from $30 to $80 per session.)

“I was able to take a deep breath after that,” Ms. Whaley said.

While Ms. Stone recommends a therapist if trauma or stress-related symptoms are interfering with a person’s work or home life, she said she also encourages Black journalists to cultivate a world outside of work and to seek support through communities of peers with whom they can share their experiences and find common ground and validation.

Clydeen McDonald, 33, a freelance journalist from Trinidad and Tobago, said he had been despondent over his work, especially after two high-profile, historically white-staffed national publications passed on his pitches about coronavirus-related news in the Caribbean region.

“Sometimes I find myself thinking, ‘Did I get rejected because it was not the right pitch or not professional enough?’” he said.

As a journalist, Mr. McDonald said he feels pressure to make sure people from his home country and other Caribbean nations see themselves in timely, in-depth news beyond hurricane coverage. Otherwise, he has not done his job, he said.

To alleviate stress, Mr. McDonald, who has been living most recently in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, has weekly phone conversations with his mother and younger sister — or as Dr. Williams put it, he has found social support within his own community of friends and family.

Nsikan Akpan, 34, a science editor at National Geographic in Washington, D.C., unwinds by going on physically demanding bike rides and speaking with his fiancé, his friends from college and other loved ones, as well as self-prescribing a sort of musical therapy that involves listening to throwback Kanye West albums for the sake of nostalgia.

“Something about some of the tracks on his early albums just really speak to me,” Mr. Akpan said. The song “Hey Mama,” a tribute to Mr. West’s mother from his 2005 album “Late Registration,” is one he has listened to repeatedly. “I think that really stuck out to me, especially because George Floyd was calling out for his mom at the end, and my dad died last year so my mom and I got closer through that,” he said. “I’ve definitely been thinking about her a lot.”

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, 27, the head of editorial at gal-dem magazine, a British publication that centers perspectives of women and nonbinary people of color, said for a while, she chose to prioritize her work “ahead of personal concerns.” She noticed her stress levels were at an all-time high, underscored by a monthlong eye twitch. She felt anguish about her decision, recently, to take a week off.

“We’ve been doing this work, this anti-racist kind of reporting, for years now,” she said. “I’ve never seen this level of interest in what we do and how we do it. It’s been intense. It’s been very draining. This period of time and this increased level of interest won’t last, and I kind of want to make the most out of it while people care.”

Site Index

Site Information Navigation

Source: Read Full Article