By Mike Corsini
The practice of journalism inevitably entails compromise. An ambiguous code of ethics and the need to bolster sinking profits can produce a newsroom environment that is relentless in its creation of news pitches but limited in their execution. Yet still, workers are drawn to the profession for the opportunities it provides for spontaneity, continued education and social justice. The newsroom environment can be a trap for those who toil long hours crafting that hallowed ‘first draft of history.’ A sense of social purpose and responsibility can often prove ruinous to the idealistic types attracted to journalism.
“Almost 60 percent of journalists aged 20 to 34 polled by Poynter Online have given thought to bolting the field…”
As today’s young writers graduate with journalism degrees, they may find that corporate homogenization and the resulting newsroom downsizing will not only restrict their ability to advance their careers, but also to carry out their jobs in the manner of which they once dreamed. According to the Media Reform Information Center, the majority of U.S. media – including books, radio, movies, videos, wire services and, of course, periodicals and television stations – are now owned by just five corporations. With corporate takeover has also come an increased emphasis on the bottom line; the quality of news is at times threatened by a lack of staffing, causing many reporters to carry widespread or multiple beats. Often the youthful journalist is forced to come to grips with the harsh reality that his or her vision of social responsibility is incompatible with the economic side of journalism. Because of these circumstances, the desire for public service at the forefront of the minds of many journalists can seem like a mere pipe dream, one which eventually leads to a frustrating realization of one’s own powerlessness. Often, journalists’ concerns are related to the disappointment that their low-paying jobs do not entail the ethical honor that first enamored them with the trade and made them willing to sacrifice greater financial success. Almost 60 percent of journalists aged 20 to 34 polled by Poynter Online have given thought to bolting the field, and a 1993 study conducted by Otterbein College professor Betsy Cook concludes that the newsroom is often problematic for a younger person. “It’s the younger employee who tends to be more burned out, sooner, in his or her career,” Cook writes. “Younger people simply are more demanding of how they’re treated.” Often the opportunity to work in the news industry is one that can be swiftly snatched away from a writer. More than two-thirds (67.2 percent) of sampled news organizations have cut staff in the past two years, according to the Poynter survey conducted by Jill Geisler. Further disconcerting young journalists is the reality that many newsrooms are static in their stratification. Newspaper writers are an aging breed, as American Society of Newspaper Editors figures from 1998 show. That year, 44 percent of newspaper journalists were over 40 years old. In 1990, just 26 percent of newspaper journalists had reached 40.
Because many journalists pride themselves on carrying a sense of social responsibility, the effort that goes into putting out a paper every day – especially with insufficient manpower – can wear on some writers when their endeavors appear to be fruitless. Young journalists often relinquish their ideals upon realizing that social problems persist in spite of their best efforts. Jane Eisner sums up the dilemma in an article in the Columbia Journalism Review , writing that “When the rewards of the workplace are significant, we can rationalize the time away from home, the missed Little League game or band concert, the fact that we never see our neighbors and barely have time to water the plants. When the rewards diminish, the questioning becomes more insistent. Is it worth it? Am I sacrificing myself on the altar of a dying profession, before corporate gods who embrace an opposing set of values?”
While corporate-driven restructuring certainly has contributed to the increase in stressed-out journalists, many symptoms existed long before the rash downsizing and the decline in newspaper readership in recent years. Young journalists may also be set ill at ease by one of the characteristics having created the journalist’s reputation as a maverick: the reality that the profession’s irregular work schedule and extensive travel often prevent reporters and editors from marrying or having children. “It takes a psychic toll: the low pay, working nights and weekends, and charging after the truth and not getting it or getting it and then everyone is mad at you. I think after years and years of that, it can get grinding,” Charlotte Observer Senior Editor Jim Walser was quoted as saying in an Editor and Publisher article by Tom Fitzgerald. But even those journalists who do have families do not accept shoddy reporting as a trade-off for more family time. Eisner shares her commitment to family, as well as her dedication to the craft that often takes precedence over family outings. She writes, “In some ways, the newsroom is inherently family-unfriendly. Even the most enlightened leadership […] cannot and should not tamper with the obligation to get the very latest news to the readers. There’s a reason it took me three years to finally see one of my daughter’s basketball games, and it wasn’t that I was a bad mom. It’s because I was trying to be a good editor.” But plenty of other professionals would be justified in making the same complaints, so what is it that makes journalism so peculiar?
In many ways the prominent stressors in the field of journalism are similar to those in other professions. Although deadline pressures are a valid cause of stress and eventually burnout, they are not unique to the news industry. Many stressful aspects of a journalist’s job are similar to those in other professions; yet something about journalism creates a higher level of stress in its practitioners. A team led by the University of Central Florida’s Fred Fedler surveyed 62 journalists who abandoned the field for other jobs and found that over 90 percent said their new jobs provided better working conditions. The occupational pressures inherent in journalism should not be dismissed simply as nuisances in the lives of practicing journalists. These singular stresses might not only be decreasing quality of llife for journalists; they might also be driving able news gatherers out of the industry. Kalter revealed in the late 1990s that the average tenure of a TV news director was about two years, and she quoted the Poynter Institute’s Geisler as saying producers usually last about three to five years. A Poynter poll of 750 journalists conducted by Geisler revealed that almost half (47.2 percent) of respondents have seriously considered leaving journalism.
Some, like Ronald Heifetz, cofounder of Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership, contend that a journalist’s maverick self-image often might prolong or exacerbate stress problems. What is seen by many journalists as a display of strength may eventually prove to be a weakness fatal to their career. Heifetz writes in a 1997 Nieman Reports article, “Oftentimes, (journalists) almost get gratification in the loneliness, or somehow it confirms their notion that they must be doing something really important because they’re out on a limb, all by themselves. I think that notion, the heroic lone warrior model of professional life or leadership, is suicidal.” In a 1992 Editor & Publisher article by Alf Pratte, Author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam agreed that members of the media are often detached from their readership and even their fellow reporters. He downplays the role economic decisions play in the production of stress, saying, “Anybody who knows anything about journalism knows that the better the reporter, the better you are at what you do, the more you vary from the accepted conventional wisdom of your town, or your city, or your state or your country, the less popular you are going to be. The tensions are never really tensions from advertisers. They are tensions from peers, from the people who live around us and are powerful in that town. It is a fear not so much of economic isolation as of social isolation.” As Halberstam notes, the causes of tension in journalism reach farther than a simple deadline or managerial dispute. Often the high-stress jobs of reporting and editing yield persisting psychological problems.
A study conducted by Kennesaw State University assistant professor Katherine Kinnick and University of Georgia professors Dean Krugman and Glen Cameron explores a construct called “compassion fatigue,” a desensitization that is often blamed on the news media. However, upon closer review, the diagnosis seems to fit the disseminators of the possibly harmful news reports. The authors claim that compassion fatigue is symptomatic of those in the “helping professions, in which subjects become increasingly desensitized to those they are supposed to help.” The authors quote a study on the health professions that says, “Burnout is a greater risk whenever people feel powerless…. They have the sense that they are at the mercy of the situation and that there is nothing they can do about it. It’s hopeless; you can’t change things; it’s bigger than all of us, so why bother trying?” Journalists might share some personality traits with their counterparts in the medical profession; after all, most of the time the information they report is meant to educate the masses to cure social ills. The authors place some of the blame for compassion fatigue on journalists, by saying, “Characteristics of the mass media which would be expected to contribute to compassion fatigue include its ubiquity in everyday life and journalistic news values which influence portrayals of social problems.” But a logical extension of the authors’ conclusion is that journalists themselves are the ones who experience fully the ”ubiquity” of the social problems they report on, and probably suffer from an equally harsh – if not harsher – form of compassion fatigue. And some might argue that objectivity itself, the staple of all quality journalistic instruction and practice, can be construed as a contributing form of compassion fatigue, a sort of trained dulling of the senses.
“Yeah, it wears on you…I gotta cover funerals sometimes; I’ve seen little dead children lying in the coffin.”
Compassion fatigue, as it is described above, is a condition that most likely affects a variety of media employees, but the position affected most severely is that of the crime reporter. While speaking to a class of journalism students at the University of Southern California, Larry Altman, crime reporter for the South Bay Daily Breeze, said he thought writers covering the police beat were more susceptible to burnout. “I’d say burnout is higher among crime reporters. My friend covers an education beat and he’s stressed out. He’s got the stress of deadlines and school people. But it is then lacking the whole ‘dead people’ part.” During the question-and-answer session, Altman repeatedly mentioned instances in which he had witnessed ghastly events, although from his casual manner it seemed he was unaffected by the emotional nature of his news subjects. “Yeah, it wears on you,” he said. “I gotta cover funerals sometimes; I’ve seen little dead children lying in the coffin. I take these little weeks off (to deal with the stress), like this week I have the whole week off.” Altman’s willingness to shield himself from potential trauma is the mark of a seasoned journalist possibly suffering from compassion fatigue after a couple of decades spent covering the crime beat. However, not all journalists are lucky enough to possess Altman’s disposition for detachment and ability to laugh off such horrific incidents, and many allow the memories to become psychological obstacles. Former New York Times columnist C.L. Sulzberger recalled how his experiences as a police reporter led him to reach a kind of traumatic satiety. After frequent visits to the morgue as a reporter, Sulzberger learned “the cynicism of morticians as they stuffed and powdered corpses of different racial origins and prepared them for public display beneath glass to be recognized by relatives and friends,” he wrote in his 1982 account, “How I Committed Suicide.” While compassion fatigue may be a symptom of journalists’ overexposure to traumatic events, there remain those like Sulzberger who are deeply affected by the trauma report on each day.
While the journalistic process has proved too much for some to handle, there are others who learned to cope with stress after experiencing burnout and continue to work in the field that attracted them as young people. Doctors often describe two separate kinds of stress in the working environment of the journalist, one beneficial, and one destructive. Joanmarie Kalter writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, “Journalism has always been a stressful profession – a superheated combination of intense competition, deadline pressure, long hours, and low pay, with the product of one’s labors played out in public and carrying real stakes. […] But what can make stress unhealthy are jobs that carry responsibility but lack control – those in which a journalist must maintain high standards without sufficient staff or budget, for instance, or implement decisions with which he disagrees.” Kalter also mentions a “good stress,” and quotes a general manager of Miami’s WTVJ-TV as saying, “I love stress! It’s the thrill and appeal of this business.” Unlike Halberstam, Kalter claims that the business aspects of journalism, in fact, are major sources of stress. In Pratte’s Editor and Publisher article titled “Suicide and Journalism,” he quotes a commentary by former journalist Robert Giles that similarly touches on the dichotomy of stress, writing, “For years we have accepted the idea that stress is a part of the newspaper life. It is, but not in the ways we imagined. The adrenaline that flows when we are on deadline or in the grip of a big story works like an injection, giving us a burst of energy to focus on the day’s news. […] The adrenaline also flows when we confront the frustrations of the manager role, when duty compels us to act for the company in ways that seem to be not in the best interests of readers. That stress bores into your pride and strips us of the sense that we are in control. It can leave us dispirited and vulnerable.” Stress, it seems, is tolerable to journalists when it produces the stories they love to create, but it can corrode one’s will when it results in nothing but a sense of feebleness toward professional limitations or social problems.
After outlining the many stressors that have an impact on the personal and professional lives of journalists, the question must be asked: Why is it worth it? As a young person enters the working world, what possibly could make them choose a field with such a wide variety of pressures detrimental to their mental health? Many may find themselves in the position of Lucy Dalglish, who left her job as night city editor of the Pioneer Press Dispatch, was rejuvenated by a one-year stint in law school, and later returned to the newsroom. She supposes that she’d like to finish law school one day, but echoes a sentiment characteristic of journalists by saying, “I’m reasonably sure I don’t want to be a lawyer. They make more money, but I suspect my job is more interesting and more fun.”. Despite the admission of many subjects in the aforementioned Poynter survey that they have considered abandoning journalism, 45.3 percent say the quality of journalism in their news organizations is holding steady despite growing financial limitations, and an additional 33.8 percent say it is improving. While the profession, with all its limitations, family sacrifices, and psychological peril, may not be for everyone, the professional journalist is certainly not a dying breed.
“[Journalists] have discovered the spuriousness of the doctrine of social responsibility.”
Author Herbert Altschull explores the disappointments and rewards of being a journalist in his book, Agents of Power: The Role of the News Media in Human Affairs. Altschull writes, “It is likely that (journalists) have discovered the spuriousness of the doctrine of social responsibility. Unquestionably, awareness of how difficult it is to meet the needs of his or her audience will be accompanied by the pain that grieves all human beings who recognize their impotence in affecting social change.” While Altschull downplays the individual’s ability to construct social change, he continues to emphasize the power of the profession as a whole. He continues, “Yet there remains for the individual journalists the possibility of performing important services for the public and – more significantly – the possibility of uniting institutionally with his or her colleagues to help change the course of human history.” While the limiting factors of the media – low salaries, deadlines, cutbacks and the difficulty of curing social ills – make the profession unattractive to some, there remain those who retain hope that their work will repay them with gratification in the end.
About the Author:
Mike Corsini is a Print Journalism major and Philosophy minor from San Rafael, Marin County, Calif. He is a Daily Trojan staff writer who aspires to work in sports journalism or public relations. He admits to having trouble maintaining objectivity where his beloved San Francisco Giants are concerned.
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