Well-being will become a core tenet of journalism

Around the globe, increases in political polarization, populist governments, far-right extremism, and recent shifts with tech companies — particularly Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and the ensuing rush of hate speech on the platform — have challenged the well-being of journalism.

Journalists have noted steep increases in online-related psychological and emotional labor, including trauma and declines in overall well-being and happiness. A UNESCO report shows that platform companies and online communities must not underestimate attacks on journalists: “The necessity to work in these spaces has resulted in a double bind: women journalists are heavily reliant on the very same services which are most likely to expose them to online violence.” Add to that the precarity of journalistic work, the unpredictable hours and continued low pay, and the remote work and isolation conditions heightened by Covid-19.

This points to the urgent need for well-being to become a priority for journalism. And I would even say: Well-being needs to become part of journalism’s normative constructs.

Research shows that online and offline attacks weigh more heavily on women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ journalists. GLAAD’s 2021 Social Media Safety Index found that 64% of surveyed LGBTQ respondents reported harassment and hate speech across social media, from TikTok to YouTube, which could lead to self-harm. Identity, including gender expression and identity, sex and sexual orientation, ethnicity, and race, plays a central role in the digital and emotional labor of journalists. For journalism to fulfill its obligations, well-being needs to become core to journalism. It matters not just for individual journalists, but for news itself and for the profession’s relationships with audiences and the public at large.

As someone who researches digital journalism practices, I realize that the responsibility for change shouldn’t just be on individual journalists and struggling news organizations. Decisions made by platform companies are also part of the problem, as the UNESCO report points out. There is still much to be done in terms of adding a well-being mindset to emerging digital practices. For example, connective practices affect journalists’ sense of well-being. This is particularly salient with the case of emerging digital disconnective practices that remain largely unacknowledged as work.

In our forthcoming book, The Paradox of Connection: How Digital Media Are Transforming Journalistic Labor, my co-authors Diana Bossio, Avery E. Holton, Logan Molyneux, and I found that disconnective practices are hardly recognized in news work and labor. It is not just “turning off” from online and social media. Disconnection practices include technical actions such as blocking or muting, micro-breaks from platforms, making accounts more secure, and turning away from engagement completely. The technical and psycho-social environments supporting disconnection focus on individual responsibilities. This is problematic, as it is connected to news organizations promoting online engagement and platform companies’ bottom lines.

Not every journalist has the same privilege to disconnect. Freelancers don’t have the same privilege as those that may have a level of job security through union contracts. Overall, there’s a need to recognize these emerging practices and create intentional spaces. These spaces can include strategic forms of disconnection and connection within the negotiation work in a digital context. And that comes with a well-being mindset.

The case of disconnective practices is one example of how well-being needs to become a core tenet of how we think of journalism as a profession. With colleagues, I have been working on another book, Happiness in Journalism, which will come with visuals of solutions for practitioners, organizations, and educators. (Stay tuned on that, or reach out to me if you want to learn more.) It might not require a complete reshuffle of news organizations. You can start with “micro changes” to welcome well-being as part of the profession of journalism, as a public health problem, such as rotating people on tasks like managing online comments.

What’s certain is that the burden should not just be on individual journalists and news organizations. While many efforts are already in the works, including the International Women Media Foundation’s Black Journalists Therapy Fund and the International Journalists’ Network’s Mental Health and Journalism Toolkit, there’s still much work to do collectively to raise awareness to journalism well-being. Platform companies will need to be better at removing or flagging threatening, racist, and libelous posts, comments, memes, videos, and images. And that goes beyond platform companies’ public relations teams who don’t have the expertise or bandwidth to understand the effect of platforms on intersectionalities or to tackle these issues in diverse and smaller linguistic and cultural communities.

To Nieman Lab readers, this may seem obvious. I know that you’re concerned about the well-being of journalists and journalism. And I know that you, too, would like to have more systematic efforts. These efforts include collaborations between institutions, tech companies, governments, and civil society in addressing or recentering well-being in journalism. It matters because it has implications on what journalism is, what it means for an industry that cares for truth and the pursuit of knowledge, and its impact on audiences and democracy. But we need efforts to spread well-being in newsrooms and, perhaps more importantly, in tech cultures. So what’s stopping us in 2023?

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon is an associate professor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.

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