Q and A

Terrell J. Starr on treating journalists as human beings

October 5, 2017

Journalism is years behind other professions in how it deals with trauma. So this week, coinciding with Mental Illness Awareness Week, CJR is publishing a series of stories from members of the journalism community who’ve dealt with mental health, illness, or treatment. We asked each journalist the same two questions: 1) What has been the toll of the profession on your mental health, and how do you manage it? and 2) How can the industry work to better address the stigma still surrounding mental illness within the journalism community?

The fourth dispatch, from The Root senior reporter Terrell J. Starr, is below. It’s been edited for length and clarity. Starr previously covered military, technology, and policy at the blog Foxtrot Alpha, and also worked as a national political correspondent at Fusion. In 2015, he wrote about #BlackSuicide and the stigma surrounding African-Americans and depression. We’re publishing firsthand accounts throughout the week. Special thanks to our friends at BuzzFeed who inspired this series.


On his personal experiences:

I was in therapy (in 2013) because I dealt with suicidal ideation and deep depression. I was in therapy twice a week during that time. When I wasn’t in therapy, I just turned off social media and learned to talk to people. We don’t have normal conversations when we talk about things going on in our minds. We are really good at going to the doctor if we have some issue with our foot, or with our breathing. The first thing we do is find a doctor. But when we talk about mental health, that seems to be more of a taboo conversation because you don’t want to be perceived as not being tough or not having the mental fitness to do your job. In my case, when I was dealing with my own mental health issues, I didn’t want people to think I was crazy. I learned how to [talk about mental health] as a result of going to therapy, and I also learned how to talk about other things, and that included how I felt about covering police violence.

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Generally, I am fine in the profession. It only becomes a problem when dealing with a succession of police shootings—it floods your timeline, and you’re often required to cover it. Back in 2014, it was extremely difficult because, especially if you’re a black journalist and you have white editors who are not connected to it, it’s a story to them, and that’s it. I’ve had times where I feel like the editor was like, “blah blah whatever,” and they weren’t sensitive, and that bothered me. That’s rarely the case now because I work in black media and places that have high representation of minorities. Now I have several beats where I’m not inundated all the time. But if I were someone who had to cover police violence, I’m not sure how long I’d be able to do that, because it would get to me.


On fighting the stigma in journalism:

The journalism world is very similar to any other [workplace] in the United States. It brings on its own stereotypes and its own assumptions about people. You have to realize people are people. When you’re covering police violence or any type of violence that deals with black people, we have to realize these are figures in our story. These are human beings, and we have to consider how these deaths impact the people who have to go on-scene and talk to parents, and talk to friends and loved ones and witnesses to the violence.

This is no longer the newspaper days where once we leave our newsrooms the cycle ends, or our access to news and information ends. Social media makes everything interconnected, and I know that a story I’m covering or a subject I’m covering will inundate my timeline. If I’m talking about police violence, I know that most of my friends or most people who follow me are black or follow me because of the work I write about black people. So one: Treat people as human beings. Two: Let people know if this is too much for [you]. And it is really okay to take some time out.

Newsrooms should provide resources for journalists to talk about mental health issues. I speak with many of my colleagues in private, and they commend me for being open, but unfortunately they don’t feel the same comfort. [They think that] if they’re perceived to be weak, they won’t be able to go up the ladder like they want. They’re basically sacrificing their mental health for job promotions. No journalist should have to pick between those two.

CJR’s health care reporting is sponsored in part by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.

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Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.