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Nurturing the guardians of truth: Prioritising mental health in newsrooms

Business

Motsamai Mokotjo

“Mental health…is not a destination, but a process. It’s about how you drive, not where you’re going,” Noam Shpancer, PHD noted.

These words resonate deeply with anyone who’s been involved in the world of journalism, where the pursuit of truth often leads down harrowing paths. This profound insight came to me recently during a discussion with colleagues about the pressing need for newsrooms to establish robust mental health support systems, particularly for journalists who routinely cover distressing, horrific, and sometimes outright human rights abuses.

It is indeed perplexing that in an age where journalism plays a pivotal role in shaping societies, there is often a conspicuous absence of adequate support for journalists tasked with reporting on the darkest facets of human existence.

Week after week, they are thrust into situations that can scar the psyche, with no structured means of processing the emotional turmoil that inevitably ensues.

How does one, for instance, report on the appalling incident where M22 million was embezzled during the traumatic period of the Covid-19 pandemic? Government officials, seemingly oblivious to the suffering of the masses, indulged themselves at the National Emergency Command Centre, later rebranded as the National Covid-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC).

The extent of cruelty perpetrated was so glaring that even the Auditor General could not remain silent. In a scathing report, the Auditor General lamented: “I noticed with dismay that despite the good intentions of the Right Honourable the Prime Minister, the bulk of public funds was not used on critical events or activities aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacting the lives of citizens. The bulk of expenditure was mainly on food and other activities not addressing the pandemic.”

Cases like these are not isolated incidents. They are emblematic of the challenges that journalists face when they delve deep into the underbelly of society to uncover uncomfortable truths. Such experiences often leave lasting scars on the minds and hearts of reporters. It is for this reason that newsrooms, and particularly editors, must take a proactive stance in safeguarding the mental health of their teams.

The role of a journalist is not limited to gathering facts and presenting them to the public; it extends to bearing witness to the darkest corners of human existence. Journalists, in their pursuit of truth, frequently encounter traumatic events, witness suffering, and confront the ugliest facets of humanity.

This constant exposure to distressing stories can take a toll on their mental well-being. It’s a relentless journey down a winding road where the destination is elusive, and the process itself is fraught with emotional challenges.

The need for psychological support in newsrooms is undeniable. Journalists need a safe space to discuss their experiences, process their emotions, and seek guidance on how to navigate the complex terrain of their profession. It is time for news organizations to prioritize the mental health of their reporters and editors. This isn’t just a matter of empathy; it’s an essential step to ensure the sustainability and credibility of the profession itself.

One organization that has to recognize the importance of mental health support for journalists is the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Lesotho. They have to take a bold step in advocating for the establishment of mental health programs within newsrooms. MISA Lesotho’s initiative should be a testament to their commitment to the well-being of journalists and the crucial role they play in society.

The mental health support for journalists should not be viewed as a luxury but as an absolute necessity. It is a recognition of the toll that reporting on the front lines of societal issues can have on an individual’s mental and emotional health.

Without this support, journalists may find themselves burnt out, desensitized, or unable to cope with the emotional demands of their profession.

The absence of mental health support in newsrooms can also impact the quality of journalism itself. Reporters struggling with unaddressed trauma may not be able to fully engage with their subjects, resulting in incomplete or biased reporting. In contrast, a journalist who is mentally resilient and supported is more likely to approach stories with empathy, objectivity, and professionalism.

To implement a robust mental health support system within newsrooms, several steps need to be taken. Firstly news organizations must acknowledge the importance of mental health and commit to creating a supportive environment. This includes providing access to qualified psychologists who can offer confidential guidance and support to journalists.

Also, newsroom leaders must encourage open conversations about mental health and actively destigmatize seeking help. Journalists should feel comfortable discussing their emotions, fears, and anxieties without fear of judgment or repercussions. This can be achieved through regular debriefing sessions, workshops on stress management, and awareness campaigns within newsrooms.

In addition to professional support, news organizations should consider implementing self-care practices as part of their culture. Encouraging journalists to take regular breaks, practice mindfulness, and engage in activities that promote mental well-being can go a long way in preventing burnout and emotional fatigue.

Ultimately, it is essential for media industry associations and regulators to recognize the importance of mental health support and advocate for its inclusion as a standard practice within newsrooms. This would require the development of guidelines and standards that prioritize the mental well-being of journalists. By prioritizing the mental well-being of those who bring us the news, we not only protect the mental health of journalists but also ensure the integrity and quality of journalism itself. It is a journey worth embarking on, for the road ahead is long, and the process is as important as the destination.

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