‘It’s not if, it’s when’: Photojournalists expose realities of burnout, trauma and a never-ending news cycle
Visual journalists — communities’ eyes and ears — are working under exhausting and dangerous circumstances. They have been at the frontline of the pandemic, injured at protests and attacked at the Capitol insurrection.
And this increasing pressure often can lead to burnout or trauma.
“It’s not if, it’s when; we’re all going to feel it,” said Nicole Frugé, director of photography at the San Francisco Chronicle, during a Journalism Institute and National Press Photographers Association program on Feb. 12. “There’s very little window to feel like you can stop and pull back.”
Joining Frugé were panelists Rich Glickstein, a recovering photojournalist, trauma therapist and social worker, and Michael Santiago, staff news photojournalist at Getty Images. Akili Ramsess, executive director at NPPA, moderated the conversation, which offered strategies to help care for visual journalists.
For journalists, practicing mindfulness is critical to building awareness.
“If I’m paying attention to myself, I’m paying attention to my heart rate. Paying attention to my breathing. Paying attention to my muscle tension. Paying attention to my mental attention — how I’m able to attend and process things,” said Glickstein. “It’s really important to be able to practice that awareness so we can get to the signs of burnout.”
For everyone, understanding the signs of burnout is the first step toward prevention. Glickstein offered a few obvious indicators:
- work fatigue;
- reduced care in details;
- increased levels of callousness when interacting with others; and
- not feeling heard.
When I start to recognize that I’m feeling burned out, my first emotion is anger. When I start to get angry pretty easily, I know that something’s wrong,” said Santiago.
When the signs of burnout arise, mental health or sick days can help.
“I put my phone down and just go home,” said Santiago. “Go for a walk and take a day off and just do nothing but play video games and read.”
For editors, it’s important to listen to those in the field and adjust expectations while the COVID pandemic continues. With heightened safety protocols, journalists might not be able to spend hours building trust among their sources or be able to capture close, intimate images.
“The key for folks in leadership is to take a step back and prioritize safety over the results,” said Frugé. “This is not the time to be ‘bad cop’ as a manager. … There’s only room for good cops these days.”
“To experience traumatic stress or have stress reactions, there needs to be some sort of actual threatened death or great bodily injury,” said Glickstein.
As witnesses of history, journalists endure these stress reactions even without the backdrop of the pandemic or protests.
“When emotions are high and stress is high, our brains are recording damn near if not everything we’re experiencing through all of our senses — even if we’re not aware that it’s happening,” said Glickstein. “A trigger can be anything that we’ve recorded.”
So how can leaders recognize when a field reporter is undergoing trauma?
“If their major roles are affected: I can’t come to work. It’s really hard for me to get out of bed. It’s hard for me to leave the house. Everything is dangerous. These are really key signs for when professional help needs to be part of the thought,” said Glickstein.
For journalists, treating trauma can go back to that mindful awareness of emotions. Santiago emphasized that it is okay to feel fear.
“If you go into a situation and don’t acknowledge that fear, that’s when you can get hurt,” he said.
Visual journals can feel that they are not full partners in the storytelling process, or that they’re not treated as equals by their colleagues.“We all have to be equals in the process of pitching and originating stories,” said Frugé.
To combat this, the panelists emphasized that newsroom leaders should aim for a more collaborative atmosphere.
“It creates the idea of inclusion, that as a photojournalist, my ideas matter,” said Glickstein.
The National Press Photographers Association is dedicated to the advancement of visual journalism – its creation, practice, training, editing and distribution – in all news media and works to promote its role as a vital public service. The NPPA is the leading voice advocating for the work of visual journalists. Our organization fights for working news photographers, videographers and multimedia journalists. Our Code of Ethics stands for the highest integrity in visual storytelling. Our advocacy efforts put NPPA in the center of today’s thorniest issues of journalists’ rights to do their work — and to earn a living from their craft. Our ongoing education initiatives seek to equip our members and prepare the emerging generation of visual journalists in the face of an ever-changing media landscape.
The National Press Club Journalism Institute promotes an engaged global citizenry through an independent and free press, and equips journalists with skills and standards to inform the public in ways that inspire civic engagement. The National Press Club Journalism Institute has added online programming, a daily newsletter, a weekly writing group, and other support for journalists since the pandemic started. The Institute has waived fees for all of its services due to the pandemic, saving participants tens of thousands of dollars. If you value what you’ve been learning from the Institute during this time, please consider a donation.
Contact Journalism Institute Executive Director Julie Moos with questions.