More Than a Job

The emotional toll of journalism’s ‘transition’

The American Newsroom photograph in our January/February 2009 issue is of a Pittsburgh Post-Gazettereporter seated at a desk that groans beneath piles of papers, files, and books. Hanging in the center of it all is a sign that reads: “You are not here to merely make a living.” With all due respect, it is not a sign likely to be found at Goldman Sachs. Or, frankly, at a lot of places where people earn a paycheck. It is a distillation of the idealism that shapes the way many journalists—particularly those who worked at a newspaper in the last quarter of the twentieth century, when the occupational touchstone was Watergate and newsroom ambitions ran high—think about what they do and why. The job is a calling; the mission is to try to improve small corners of the world.

Sound like romantic nonsense? No doubt a healthy dose of mythology and narcissism has always been mixed up in journalism’s self-image. But disturbing anecdotal evidence is emerging from among the thousands of reporters and editors who have been laid off in recent years that this sense of mission is not only real, but in some cases it is making the transition from the newsroom to whatever comes next especially difficult.

When that mission is taken away, it turns out, there are emotional costs as well as financial ones. In recent months we’ve heard from or about out-of-work journalists who are struggling with everything from mild depression and anxiety to a profound sense of purposelessness and—at the most extreme—thoughts of suicide.

Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, says there are parallels between the dislocation that comes from covering violence and the dislocation brought on by economic upheaval. “As I heard from more and more people who had been forced out of the newsroom, I realized that the existential crisis that conflict reporters often have—that loss of power, that loss of status that happens to all victims of trauma—is also part of what happens when you lose your job,” he says.

Losing any job can be traumatic, and we are not suggesting that this emotional toll is unique to journalism. But when one considers his job a vocation—something he was meant to do—it can be much more difficult to process the loss of that identity, and to imagine oneself filling a different role in the world. Don Terry, a veteran reporter who was laid off by the Chicago Tribune and is now part of CJR’s inaugural Encore Fellows program (see his first contribution here), told us of being out to dinner with his wife and some nonjournalist friends soon after he was let go. “They were trying to cheer me up, saying how exciting it was that I was free to do anything I wanted,” he says. “I sort of snapped and said, ‘Hey, give me some time to process it. This is all I ever wanted to do.’ It was so much fun to do this job. I’d never tell my bosses, of course, but I’d do it for free if I could.”

Journalism has never been good at self-care. Another piece of the journalist’s self-image is that of a tough-minded observer, unaffected by what he sees and hears. When reporters began coming home from Iraq with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, news organizations were generally slow to respond with counseling and other treatment and support. And as Anthony DePalma showed in the March/April 2009 issue of CJR, newsrooms—and journalists themselves—were slow to acknowledge and address the physical and emotional problems stemming from their coverage of 9/11. This stoicism makes it even harder for someone struggling with the loss of his job—and his sense of self—to ask for help. But he shouldn’t have to. News outlets owe it to these people they are pushing out the door to understand that this suffering is real and incorporate some form of optional counseling or other support strategies into their severance packages.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.