Mindfulness and proactive strategies to help journalists cope with on-the-job trauma and digital threats.
Even during the most stressful of circumstances, there’s one tool every journalist in any setting has at their disposal: mindfulness. Being in the moment, monitoring their breathing, and, if you are not under imminent attack, reminding yourself at that moment, all is well. It may sound like psychobabble, but members of the safety training and counseling team with the International Women’s Media Foundation believe mindfulness practices can help journalists enhance their well-being.
On July 15, journalism safety trainer Holly Pickett, psychoanalyst Ana Zellhuber and digital safety expert Mari Galicer shared valuable insights with Widening the Pipeline fellows on day-to-day strategies for guarding their emotional well-being and online presence.
➀ Just breathe. It may seem simplistic, but International Women’s Media Foundation safety trainer Holly Pickett said explained that slow, diaphragmatic breathing “activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is part of our nervous system that will help calm your body’s stress response.” Psychoanalyst Ana Zellhuber said she frequently uses breathing techniques to help calm journalists suffering from PTSD. She also emphasized the importance of evaluating the risk posed by your surroundings, even in high-stress environments. Even in the worst of situations, Zellhuber said, once you find yourself in a safe place, slowing down your breathing helps you formulate a proper response.
➁ Recognize and acknowledge your feelings. There’s no denying that breaking news equals stress, whether it’s a high-stakes vote in Congress or a shooting at a local mall. Journalists are trained to be unemotional and objective witnesses to the events they cover. But Pickett says it can be difficult to turn off the human “fight or flight” instinct. When stress strikes, Pickett recommends finding time to slow down your breathing and actively acknowledge and accept your physical and emotional response — no matter what it is. “You’re not crazy,” Pickett said, “There’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, this is your body working the way it’s supposed to.”
➂ Identify security threats. The collaborative and online nature of journalism requires using a broad range of online platforms and research methods. Each introduces risk, said Mari Galicer, cofounder of Signalboost, a messaging application that provides encrypted broadcasts and hotlines for activists and grassroots organizers. The different portals frequently accessed by journalists can simultaneously open up multiple layers of threat. To help journalists identify points where they might be most vulnerable, Galicer explained the concept of threat modeling, in which a journalist identifies all the different avenues that might open them up to online and or physical harassment. These could include email lists, contact lists, instant messages, location apps and direct contact with sources. “Understanding what your important information is, as well as who potentially might want to get ahold of it, is the first vital step in protecting both journalists’ and their sources’ information,” Galicer said.
➃ Online harassers are often just all talk. While journalists should never underestimate the possibility of harm, Zellhuber often reminds her clients that a lot of the hate and hostility posted online comes from those hiding behind a computer screen. “It’s tiny little people who feel they don’t have any power for anything, who are angry and who are jealous and envious of those they attack,” Zellhuber said. “They’re always envious because they feel so little, so they want to make the other one feel as little. And so they threaten them, but they can do nothing really.” Zellhuber said her goal in working with people who’ve been cyber-bullied is to help them stay calm and make rational decisions about how to respond.
➄ Practice self-care on a regular basis. Journalists, particularly those who cover traumatic events, must commit to finding time to unwind. For some, that might mean going home to “crash,” Pickett said, highlighting this all-too-common physical response to exhaustion. But she said journalists don’t have to choose between high stress or a total meltdown. Finding a healthy balance is key to maintaining a healthy immune system response, Pickett said. Establish a regular self-care check-in routine and a regularly scheduled fun activity. And even journalists should turn off the news every now and then.
The Widening the Pipeline Fellowship is sponsored by the Evelyn Y. Davis Foundation, Bayer, J&J and Twitter. NPF is solely responsible for the content.