Photo courtesy of Michelle-Andrea Girouard.

What newsrooms are doing – and not doing – to deal with the mental health of their reporters

By Trevor Hewitt  Weaving through busy streets on his gas scooter, Cliff Lonsdale thought about what was about to happen – after all, it’s not every day you’re sent to interview someone whose daughter has just been killed. As he reached his destination, Lonsdale knocked on the door. A woman answered. “Yes?” she asked, in…

By Trevor Hewitt 

Weaving through busy streets on his gas scooter, Cliff Lonsdale thought about what was about to happen – after all, it’s not every day you’re sent to interview someone whose daughter has just been killed.

As he reached his destination, Lonsdale knocked on the door. A woman answered. “Yes?” she asked, in a manner that made it perfectly clear to Lonsdale what was about to happen next. “The way she said ‘yes’ I knew, instantly, she had no idea that her daughter was dead,” Lonsdale said.

“Who are you?” the woman said, as Lonsdale stood awkwardly on her doorstep. He told her he was with the Southern Daily Echo, a local tabloid paper. “Oh, I love the Echo!” the woman said. After a few moments of small talk, Lonsdale knew he had to break the news. “We have information that your daughter was in a car crash last night,” he said.

“Oh my gosh, I hope she’s not hurt!” the woman said. After Lonsdale told her what had happened, she was devastated, collapsing onto the ground. “I didn’t know what the hell to do,” Lonsdale said.

On Oct. 22, Lonsdale joined panelists Jan Wong and Anthony Feinstein for “Mental Health And The Newsroom,” a panel curated by journalist Scott Simmie and hosted by the Canadian Association of Journalists. The discussion focused on  how the media industry addresses mental health issues and how journalists cope with stresses caused by the job.

The panelists all agreed that Canadian media outlets have historically failed to offer adequate support to journalists dealing with work-related trauma. According to Lonsdale, traditional newsrooms used to employ a “suck it up” attitude regarding mental health issues brought on by work assignments. If you couldn’t deal with it, you wouldn’t get good assignments.

Wong began dealing with depression after she received backlash from a 2006 piece she wrote on the Dawson College shooting in Montreal.

“There’s this mentality that ‘it can’t happen to me,’” Wong said. She said when she stopped working due to depression around the start of 2007, the Globe and Mail cut off her sick pay and benefits. Though she initially received a severance package from the company, she was ordered by an arbitrator to pay it back,  after the Globe alleged certain passages in Wong’s 2012 book, Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness, violated their confidentiality agreement with Wong.

Wong said that after her departure from the Globe, she was convinced she’d never be able to find work again. “It’s a double trauma,” she said, referring to both the underlying depression and stress caused by looking for work.

But that trauma Wong experienced isn’t as uncommon for journalists as one would think, said Feinstein, a University of Toronto psychiatry professor who specializes in the mental health of journalists. Feinstein said studies have shown that journalists reporting from warzones have rates of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 10 times higher than the regular population. And the introduction of social media has only made it worse, Feinstein said

Now journalists don’t need to be on the front lines to be faced with the graphic images, sounds and videos of war. Studies have shown that even looking at traumatic photos can lead to PTSD – but only if looking at those photos is a part of your job. That caveat puts journalists especially at risk, Feinstein said, as they routinely use online images for putting together stories. 

Lonsdale said that news organizations are only just beginning to compensate for an increase of journalists facing mental health issues, something he said is a result of people like Wong telling their stories. But Lonsdale added that even though many major outlets, such as the CBC and the New York Times, offer their employees formal training, this perk rarely applies to freelancers. It’s a growing problem in a world where freelancing is a rapidly increasing demographic within the media industry.

Wong agrees. She said that she began to see improvements made at the Globe and Mail after she left. It’s a bittersweet feeling she said, comparing it to what she’d imagine it would feel like to be the last person who was hung in Canada.

Despite the criticisms the panelists made towards media in dealing with mental health, they seemed optimistic that things were beginning to head in the right direction. Simmie pointed out that the CBC now has a policy on dealing with PTSD in employees, and has also begun offering hostile environment training. The New York Times now requires its foreign correspondents to speak with Feinstein before going out on assignment. Despite these strides, however, all the panelists agreed that more needs to be done to set minimum standards and policies for freelancers’ access to mental health services.

Too often, Lonsdale said, the reluctance for change in newsrooms stemmed from a desire to fit in. People didn’t want to be seen as the person who was labeled as depressed, anxious or traumatized. It’s a phenomenon that Simmie touched on as well, lamenting over the fact that if you have cancer, people will come to see you with armloads of flowers, but if you have depression, they’ll feel awkward even visiting you.

As Lonsdale was packing up and about to leave the house of the woman whose daughter had died, she stopped him. “Wait a minute, you came for a photograph,” she said, returning from her mantelpiece with a picture of her daughter.  Lonsdale was surprised. “Are you sure?” he asked, surprised by how composed this woman was, just minutes after finding out her daughter had been killed. “Yes,” the woman said. “She should be in the paper.”

Lonsdale returned to his office and explained to his editor what had happened. He said he wasn’t haunted most by the woman’s reaction, or the events themselves, but by how his colleagues reacted to them. “I could hear some reporters talking behind me, and I could hear one of them say, ‘You hear about that new guy Lonsdale? He went to get a picture and the mother didn’t know her daughter was dead – he got it anyway. He’s one of us.’

Lonsdale said that line – “he’s one of us” – has bothered him for years. “I should’ve turned around and said it’s not like that,” he said.

“But I wanted to fit in.”

Trevor Hewitt is a freelance reporter in his third year of Ryerson University's journalism program.