London called… and it became a blog post about journalists’ anxieties 

Golly, it’s been a while (I think WordPress actually has stats on how many blog posts start with something like this, and despite what is written below there is no whisky in that coffee cup pictured above)
Anyhow, this little item from the good folks at the London Press Club prompted to me to finish an abandoned blog post I started earlier, around the time of the much-hyped, corporate sponsor oozing, Pink Shirt and Let’s Talk events on bullying and mental health.

So, here’s the story from the London Press Club:
You probably saw it headlined elsewhere as “Journalists drink too much, are dumber than average, study finds”; “Journalists brains operate at below average due to excessive booze and caffeine”; “Journalists drink too much, are bad at managing emotions, and operate at a lower level than average, according to a new study” (Actual headlines written by our peers, by the way – ouch.)

The post I’d sketched out a few months back started with a brief rant about the commercialization of Let’s Talk and Pink Shirt Day on par with Linus’ take-down of the commercialization of Christmas. It wasn’t that good.

I also wanted to give people an idea of what does keep me, and most of my colleagues, awake at night and leads to the mental health issues a certain really big company wanted us to talk about before they’d donate money to groups that help.

If you ask anyone outside the business what the biggest source of anxiety is for a reporter working in the relative safety of the North American media they’d probably say losing your job, missing a deadline, or getting scooped, but it’s mainly waiting.  Not waiting for a callback from a source, or waiting for an email or some vital piece of information to come through, but the waiting that comes after you send your story off into the wild to fend for itself.

Those are the really anxious moments. The ones that impact job performance and mental health.

You research, you write, and then you wait to see if the people who’ve trusted you with their stories feel betrayed, or wait for someone to call you out on an error, or for someone in authority to lay the blame on you for how the readers feel about their publicly-stated positions on the issue you’re writing about. Add to that the worry that you have actually gotten it wrong.  

The weekly I write for these days goes to the printer early Thursday morning, then online late Thursday morning, and out onto the streets Friday morning.  

I toss-and-turn all Wednesday night. Did I get everything right? Did I present the views of my sources with accuracy and respect? Am I going to have to deal with overflowing e/voice mail inboxes come Monday? It’s hard to explain those anxieties to people outside the business. You’ll just have to trust us.

First responders and other professions are developing formalized mechanisms for dealing with this sort of stress. We don’t really have that in journalism right now, especially at smaller outlets where we’re left to cope as best we can. Sometimes that means a good stiff drink. Sometimes it’s just bitching with your colleagues. Sometimes it’s punching a wall, kicking a garbage can, or worse – yelling at your colleagues. I’m guilty of all three at one point or another. Basically all the stuff the London Press Club study is talking about.

And that’s the real takeaway from the London Press Club’s work (published on its website under the headline “How journalists SHOULD handle stress – new study”). Journalists operate these days in an atmosphere of increasing public hostility to what we do, how we do it, and how well we’re doing it.

While our traditional coping mechanisms might make a for a good joke, and stories us old guys can amuse the cub reporters with, we’re also starting to recognize there’s a strong undercurrent of dangerous self-medication in all of it, and we’re not the only segment of society where it’s a problem.

On the upside, the London Press Club study found journalists have more resilience because of the importance we attach to what we do. Which, oddly, is also the main source of the stress and anxiety.  

“All the traditional crutches that hacks use to deal with stress – endless coffees, snatched meals, a quick snifter before deadline, coupled with little or no exercise outside the quick sprint to the pub – mean that they are more prone to bad temper, bias and an inability “to solve complex problems”, according to a new study carried out in conjunction with the London Press Club. The upside is that their unshakable belief in the value in what they are doing means journalists have more ‘bounce back’. ‘The pressures of the job are not affecting journalists’ ability to endure and bounce back from adversity in the long term, due to the belief that their work has meaning and purpose,’ says neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart.”

Not everyone whose coping mechanisms are caffeine, alcohol, or bad lifestyle habits that seem to be helping in the moment, has that small, but apparently vital, advantage.

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