Managing the news and your mental health

Last night I went to a talk by one of my editors and a mindfulness expert about how to stay positive and manage stress in a time when the news is largely depressing and overwhelming. The recent change in presidency has heralded attacks on the media and endless news alerts on phones — most of which are stressful. Add onto that working for the Columbia Missourian, a part-time job that actually pays, classes and the fact that I would like actually like to spend some time with my friends, and I’m worn thin. The past few weeks have been stressful.

At the event last night, Dr. Lynn Rossy spoke about about how people can usually consume the news that is being generated by President Trump in bite-sized pieces. Journalists don’t have that luxury. To do our jobs, we have to be constantly looking at the news and Twitter, monitoring the pulse of news first-thing in the morning and last-thing at night. Journalists are also covering some traumatic and depressing events. In order to not let that overwhelm us and not let the stress that is inherent to our job harmful to ourselves, Dr. Lynn Rossy recommended a few tips. One was that when we feel ourselves being overwhelmed by stress to stop, take a breath, observe our body, thoughts and feelings then proceed with our work.

While that may sound like a stereotypical mindfulness message when I write it here, it definitely was not. This talk could have been the somewhat cheesy “take a deep breath” sort of speech, but it went so far beyond that. Yes, we took deep breaths. No, it wasn’t cheesy — it actually worked. The talk was geared toward and relevant to the stress of journalists who are also students and how in specific instances that we face we can manage our stress.

This talk made me aware that the tensing of my body every time a news alert goes off on my phone is a natural reaction. It taught me to view my stress not as something harmful, but as a launching-off point to get stuff done and become motivated. And yes, it taught me to breathe. When I got home afterward, I set a boundary between my personal life and my work (which was also mentioned as important in the talk), put aside my computer and went to bed earlier than I had all semester. This morning, I felt great. So thank you to my editor and Dr. Lynn Rossy, who recognized the unusually high levels of stress in the Columbia Missourian newsroom and did something about it. I know it helped me and gave me tools to use this semester and throughout my career.

Is there such a thing as getting too much information from a source?

This past week I’ve been reporting and writing a couple of stories on subjects that I previously knew nothing about – composting latrines and maple syrup production. Because I knew very little about those subjects when I started reporting I asked my sources a lot of questions about how everything worked so that I could make sure I was writing accurately. What ended up happening was that I got so bogged down with that information that I wrote stories that were mostly about the process, which wasn’t the most interesting or engaging part. My editor worked with me to cut down the amount of information on the process and focus on what was actually interesting to the reader.

After making those edits to my stories I began to think about how I had gone about my reporting. I believe I asked so many questions and was so overloaded with information that it had a negative impact on my writing. But how do you know when to stop? At what point do you look at what you’ve got and say “This is all I need?” One of my teachers once told me that a good journalist never feels like their story is perfect. I’m starting to realize that I may be a journalist that never feels like they’ve done enough reporting, even when I actually have all the information I need to write a good story.

Sunshine Law

In lecture this week we discussed the Missouri Sunshine Law and how journalists can use it to hold public governing bodies accountable. The Sunshine Law is a pretty powerful thing – it allows journalists to request documents from public officials or groups. From a public figure, we can request emails sent on their business email, records from their travel for their work and other documents that allow journalists to ensure those people are operating in the interest of the public. It can also help to make public governing bodies more transparent to the public in what they are doing.

Having never submitted a records request before, I didn’t know how those requests can sometimes be worked around. One of our editors presented this lecture and he gave several examples of times when the newspaper’s records requests had been met with some resistance. What particularly stood out to me was how long some of these people and institutions take to produce these records. In one case, he said the total time to get the records they had requested would end up being around 11 weeks. It seems as if there are some gaps in the Missouri Sunshine Law that allow the public governing bodies to do this and subsequently make the job of a journalist harder. I’ll be interested to see what sort of records requests I end up filing and how those transpire.

Writing a life story

One of the unique things the Columbia Missourian does is publish life stories about people who have died. A life story is an expanded obituary. The reporter will call family members and talk to them about the person who has died – what their interests were and what some of their memories about them are. The Missourian then includes that information in the information from the obituary.

When I was on general assignment yesterday, I was assigned my first life story. I knew I would eventually have to do a life story, but to be honest, I was a little uncomfortable with the idea. I felt a little bit like I would be intruding by calling the family while they were grieving, not knowing whether or not they would be willing or in a place to talk to me. My assistant editor explained to me that we were giving them a chance to tell the story of their family member or friend.

When I called the family of the person whose life story I was writing, I found out that that was exactly the case. They were very willing to talk to me about their father and share a little bit about what made him who he was. I believe it helped that they were familiar with the J-School and the Missourian, and that led them to understand what we were trying to do. I think that they were actually glad of the chance to talk about their father and share why he was special to them. That experience made me more comfortable with the idea of calling people even when they’re grieving.