A traumatic news cycle for journalists and audiences

On Tuesday, the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white former cop from Minneapolis who has been charged with murdering George Floyd, entered its second day. Three teenagers and a nine-year-old witness testified about the toll that seeing Floyd die took on them. Wednesday brought more emotional testimony. On Thursday, it was the turn of Courteney Ross, Floyd’s girlfriend, who recalled how she met Floyd and described him as a “mama’s boy,” dabbing her face with a tissue. Throughout the first week of the trial, prosecutors have played devastating footage of Floyd’s arrest and death; at one point, a witness named Charles McMillian sobbed on the stand. Millions of people have seen the same footage on TV, since the court agreed to let cameras in. As Amudalat Ajasa wrote for The Guardian this morning, watching has “acutely re-traumatized” many “Minnesotans and Black people across the country, in particular.” CNN has displayed numbers that viewers can call for support, with the advice: “It’s always important to speak to someone and not feel that you’re facing this alone.”

Journalists are among those who are struggling. Yesterday, Yamiche Alcindor, of PBS, tweeted, “I can’t watch this video anymore.” And it’s not just the Chauvin trial. We are living—and, in the case of journalists, working—through a news cycle that is traumatizing almost anywhere you turn. It’s only been two and a half weeks since a white gunman killed eight people, six of them Asian women, at spas in the Atlanta area. (“More than anything, my heart hurt—my role as a reporter aside—as a person from the same immigrant society,” Sang Yeon Lee, the president of Atlanta K, a Korean-language outlet, told my colleague Shinhee Kang.) Last week, a gunman killed ten people at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado. This week, a gunman killed four people, including a nine-year-old, at an office complex in Orange County, California. We’re all still living in the grip of the pandemic—vaccination is accelerating in many places, but confirmed infections are climbing again, too. On Monday, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, went off script at a press briefing and talked about her sense of “impending doom”: America has “so much reason for hope,” she said, “but right now I’m scared.” Her warning was covered widely.

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In addition to the bleakness of the news, many journalists—and women and reporters of color, in particular—are under direct attack. Trump may be gone from the White House, but the anti-press hostility he stoked lives on, and online abuse seems only to have gotten worse in recent months. In February, Seung Min Kim, a politics reporter at the Washington Post, was attacked online in retaliation for her reporting on the (ultimately doomed) nomination of Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Last month, Taylor Lorenz, a tech reporter at the New York Times, spoke out, on International Women’s Day, about a “harassment and smear campaign” that has “destroyed” the past year of her life; in response, Tucker Carlson attacked Lorenz on his Fox News show, accusing her of “pretending to be oppressed.” Soon after, the pro-Trump One America News Network aired the email and phone number of Rachel Abrams, a Times reporter working on a story about OAN, and urged viewers to contact her in the name of fighting “intimidation by the left.”

In response to these attacks, editors put out statements defending Kim, Lorenz, and Abrams; the Times accused Carlson of using “a calculated and cruel tactic, which he regularly deploys to unleash a wave of harassment and vitriol at his intended target.” Many reporters, however, feel that newsroom managers do not have their backs. Last week, an unnamed Times reporter told Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein that often, editors tell reporters to simply ignore trolls, which demonstrates a failure to understand the “emotional toll” of online abuse. “Where I used to be afraid to open my email and see a torrent of things,” the reporter said, “now I’m afraid to open Twitter.” Klein’s story quoted Steven Ginsberg, the editor at the Post who defended Kim. After it was published, Felicia Sonmez, another Post reporter, tweeted that Ginsberg and his colleagues had not come to her aid her last year—when Kobe Bryant died, and she drew attention to a rape allegation against him, then was mobbed with abuse and death threats. Instead of receiving support, Sonmez was suspended; she said that Post editors barred her from covering sexual assault because she had spoken publicly about her own experience with it. This week, the paper lifted the prohibition. “This is good news,” Sonmez tweeted, “but it’s unfortunate that it had to come at such a high emotional toll, and after my distress was dismissed for years.” On the same day the Vanity Fair story came out, Hemal Jhaveri announced in a Medium post that she had just been fired as a race and inclusion editor at USA Today after she erroneously identified the Boulder shooter as white, and was targeted by right-wing trolls. Jhaveri wrote that she has been harassed online many times before and that her bosses “never offered public, institutional support.”

The brutality of the news cycle, abuse, and the general bad state of the media industry are putting journalists under intense strain. As a result, many talented people, and especially those from oppressed groups, have been prevented from doing their best work—or have decided to quit their jobs altogether. This week, Stacy-Marie Ishmael and Millie Tran, the editorial director and chief product officer, respectively, of the Texas Tribune, announced that they would leave their posts fourteen months after starting, because they had become burned out. Both cited the news cycle. “It has been impossible for me to separate what’s been happening in the world, which we’ve been covering rigorously and intensely for these twelve months, from what’s happening in my own life and in the lives of my friends, family and communities,” Ishmael said. “The simultaneity of each tragedy means there’s no time to process, so everything deepens, compounds, repeats,” Tran wrote on Twitter. She added, “crises also clarify. I realized it’s essential to give as much care to the entirety of my life as I do my work.”

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For many journalists, the past year has piled on pressure to work that has been difficult for a long time. Three years ago, my CJR colleague Alexandria Neason wrote of the toll that repeat awful news cycles had taken on her. When she entered the industry, in 2014, it was “amidst a news cycle oversaturated with an endless loop of unarmed shootings of black men, boys, women, and girls,” Neason wrote. “I found myself relying on those old norms and suffering in silence, leaving my fatigue—and the guilt I felt for feeling it at all—unaddressed”; over time, as the nation’s focus shifted toward Trump, “that lethargy began to snowball even more quickly, as a volatile administration transformed the news cycle yet again. That lethargy has now gone mainstream.” Trump may be gone, but for many of us, the pain has only gotten worse.

Below, more on a traumatic news cycle:

  • Reporting from court: Due to coronavirus restrictions, only two reporters are physically allowed to attend the Chauvin trial at a time. Yesterday, it was the turn of CNN’s Sara Sidner to be in the room; during a recess, she went outside, walked through a high-security area, and spoke about the experience in a video that she posted online. “After concentrating, and seeing people cry, and seeing those horrifying pictures of George Floyd as they’re trying to resuscitate him,” she said, “then you come out to what looks like some sort of a Green Zone, war-zone situation. It really is surreal.”
  • “When the mob comes”: For her newsletter, Men Yell at Me, Lyz Lenz shared her experience of online harassment, and spoke with Talia Lavin, another journalist who has faced abuse. After Lenz profiled Tucker Carlson for CJR in 2018, her “phone exploded,” she wrote. “My Google number, which I used almost exclusively then, was doxed and I got message after message of alt-right memes. Facebook messages. Twitter messages. Instagram messages and comments. Emails. So many emails. For an entire year, it didn’t end.”
  • The local level: Last month, Gary Harki, an investigative reporter at the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, wrote for Poynter that “the harassment and hate directed at national news outlets in the ‘fake news’ hasn’t trickled down to smaller markets. It’s always been there.” Harki’s story, which describes the vitriol his colleagues have faced, particularly when covering race, was originally set to appear in the Virginian-Pilot, but editors decided to submit it to Poynter instead: “To run it in our paper, with its descriptions of the effects the harassment has on reporters, would be giving the trolls ammunition.”
  • Self-care: In a post for NBCU Academy, Bruce Shapiro, who leads the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia, offered self-care tips for reporters who “feel emotional distress covering the violence and abuse their communities face”; they include putting your phone away, getting help if you need it, and “pacing your trauma load.” (ICYMI, on April 6, Dart will partner with CJR to host a virtual summit dedicated to improving coverage of guns and mass shootings. You can find out more here.)


Other notable stories:

  • CNN’s Matt Egan spoke with Patrick Soon-Shiong, the owner of the LA Times; in the interview, Soon-Shiong denied reports that he is considering selling the paper, confirmed reports that it lost more than fifty-million dollars in revenue last year, and said that he is closing in on appointing a new executive editor. Elsewhere, the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani profiles Soon-Shiong’s daughter, Nika, who has emerged as an informal “surrogate” between the LA Times and her family, and encouraged the paper “to vastly increase its coverage of nonwhite communities.”
  • The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson debunked claims made by Alex Berenson, a former Times reporter turned regular Fox guest who, Thompson writes, is “the Secretariat of being wrong” about the pandemic. “Berenson seems to enjoy spelunking through research to find esoteric statistics that he then dresses up with spooky language to make confusing points that sow doubt about the vaccines,” Thompson writes, yet “the case against the vaccines wobbles because it is built upon a steaming pile of bullshit.”
  • For CJR, Bill Grueskin reports on an insider-trading indictment that alleges a pattern of contact between the accused, Jason Peltz, and a reporter at Bloomberg, which published stories about various companies shortly after Peltz arranged to buy shares in them. “No one at Bloomberg is accused by prosecutors of wrongdoing or of being aware that these stories might be linked to an insider-trading scheme,” Grueskin writes.
  • Last week, the New Republic announced plans to move the bulk of its editorial operations from New York to DC, which worried many New York-based staffers. The union that represents them raised their concerns with management, which has since agreed, per the union, “that no employee currently working in New York City will be asked to relocate and no one will lose their jobs relating to the company’s decision.”
  • Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s decision, under the Trump administration, to loosen media-ownership rules, making it easier for a single company to own multiple news organizations in the same market. An appeals court ruled that the FCC failed to properly assess the impact of its decision on women and minority media ownership, but the Supreme Court rejected that reasoning.
  • Vice Media is opening an office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; according to Alex Ritman, of the Hollywood Reporter, the office will be “a small operation mostly focussed on commercial and business-to-business offerings.” Vice will partner with a research and marketing firm that has ties to the Saudi government.
  • Yesterday, a court in Hong Kong convicted Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media tycoon, and six other defendants of involvement in a 2019 pro-democracy march. Lai, who owns the Apple Daily newspaper, faces up to five years in jail and could be convicted of other charges. (Recently, Elaine Yu spoke with more than two dozen Hong Kong journalists and asked, for CJR, whether its free press will survive.)
  • On Wednesday, residents of Yangon, Myanmar, banged pots and pans in protest of the country’s military regime while a team of journalists from CNN made their way through the city under armed guard. According to Reuters, Ari Ben-Menashe, a lobbyist working for the regime, arranged CNN’s visit; he said that the guard was “escorting” CNN’s team to interviews with officials and to see factories that were recently destroyed.
  • And Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, of the Times, are adapting She Said, their book about Harvey Weinstein, into Chasing the Truth, a new edition that promises to be “a young journalist’s guide to investigative reporting.” Kantor said that the new edition aims to show young people how “this work can uncover hidden truths, hold the powerful to account, and help drive social change.” The Associated Press has more.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.