Now that I’ve been working in a post-college journalism job for a few months, I want to share some thoughts about the job with other young journalists, especially those just starting out and feeling apprehensive about being “good enough.”
I want to talk specifically about handling sensitivity and anxiety, and why it’s important to have a plan and something you believe in to fall back on.
I chose journalism in college in part to face my social anxiety and shyness. I am a sensitive person, and by that I mean I am easily hurt by what others have to say and I take criticism more personally than I should. It doesn’t matter how rationally I approach those situations in my mind; my stomach will still lurch when I’m out gathering information and someone yells at me, or when I see some nasty words in the subject line of an e-mail.
I knew pursuing this career path would expose me to those things, and I wanted a chance to really develop resilience and confidence rather than keep putting one toe out of my comfort zone at a time. I’m convinced that it’s working, but this starting-out period of pushing myself to face these things is really difficult.
Anxiety affects me every day. Eating and maintaining an appetite is difficult for me already, and some mornings I can’t keep anything more than coffee and a few bites of an apple down. On the days where I have an intense or high-stakes story to report on, where it’s especially crucial for me to stay nourished, I can feel my throat closing tight and my stomach reporting “we’re all full down here, boss” to my brain from the moment I get out of bed to the moment I clock out.
This job is stressful, it’s unpredictable, and increasingly, it’s unpopular.
According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 68% of Americans have “not very much” or “none at all” trust in mass media, including newspapers, T.V. and radio, to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. That trust was at its highest in 1976 in the wake of reporting on Vietnam and Watergate, with 72% of people reporting a great or fair amount of trust.
There are a lot of interesting reasons for this crisis of faith: We can investigate how the internet massively shifted advertising power (and later, community power) away from newspapers and to craigslist, twitter, and community Facebook groups. We can look at how the purchasing of news organizations by entertainment conglomerates and billionaires has obviously distorted their ability to report fairly. (See: Sinclair.)
There are many other factors, but the point is that on top of the regular stress you’ll deal with in any job that relies on interacting with other people (who are often not having great days), you will be heavily scrutinized and criticized.
That scrutiny is mostly justified, since your voice and your google docs give you a greater-than average obligation to not screw up. But you need to be prepared for those screw ups to hurt. If you care about being honest and thorough, it will hurt. There’s no way around that. If it doesn’t hurt when you make a major mistake, your mindset isn’t right for the job.
In my short time at my new job, I have written about 125 articles. I have misspelled names, gotten dates wrong, and misread a few criminal charges. Each mistake is painful, upsetting, and (temporarily) makes me feel like my reporting is doing more harm than good. But after a few minutes, I clench my jaw and flex my hands, splash some water on my face, and get back to work.
I asked around my own friends in similar positions to me, and the responses I got had to do with imposter syndrome; feeling stupid in interviews, feeling like your content is bad, feeling like you’re not “cut from the right cloth” to do the job. It doesn’t help that the people you interview or who read your work will often tell you all those things to your face.
And when you haven’t built a shield of faith in yourself against those criticisms yet, they dig into your gut, even when they’re not made in good faith. Trolls and jerks want you to feel like shit — and if you care about the work you’re doing and you’re still building confidence in it, they can be really good at making you feel like shit. I hesitate to give toxic people any reinforcement, but it’s the truth, at least for me, and at least for now.
I especially feel for my colleagues who say they feel like if they can’t take criticism, they’re not cut out for the job. Again, it’s that same fear that spurred me into the game. Maybe the biggest saving grace of the job is that I really am getting better at it.
So I want to say this to my friends who are new or hopeful journalists, especially if you work with conditions like anxiety or depression as I do:
• This is a job that anyone can do, but only those who really care can do it well. You can go to school and get a degree in it like I did (and if that decision makes sense for you, I think you absolutely should do it). But there’s no substitute for just doing a lot of work. If you care about finding the truth, looking for more than just the easy, menial stories, and pushing yourself when you feel intimidated or overwhelmed, you will do well.
• Caring a lot means that you’ll be upset with yourself when you inevitably make mistakes, big or small. If you can, keep the core of yourself sincere and vulnerable and work on building a bubble of confidence around it. If you let your optimism die to save your own sanity, you’ll find yourself burning out much more quickly.
• You will find yourself reporting on unpleasant events, with people understandably upset with you for publicizing them (especially on a crime / court beat). You’ll second-guess yourself and wonder if you’re doing the right thing at all (Of course, if you really feel like you’re being too intrusive, or doing the wrong thing, follow that instinct). But early on, try to develop a code — something you remind yourself of when you feel doubts about the job. For instance, I tell myself: “People will talk about this story no matter what I do. But I can try to paint an accurate and compassionate version of it in my reporting.”
• Do not allow contempt to grow and cloud out reasonable (if not always friendly) criticism. DO cut out people who are genuinely toxic or aggressively clueless. But of all the angry or upset calls and emails I have received, 95% of them have contained something I didn’t know or a perspective I didn’t consider, and I was better off for having the person take the time to yell at me.
• Don’t shut yourself away from the community you report on. It can be scary to walk around and grocery shop and go to parties when I know there are some people in town who don’t like me. But barricading myself in my room only makes me and other journalists seem more inscrutable, aloof, and removed from their communities. Do your best to see and be seen around town, and do it proudly and relaxed. People will come up to you and talk about your writing to you every once in a while. You’ll be fine.
• If you’re not sure of the ethics or proper procedure for something, ask someone for help. Build a network of peers you can rely on. I am happy to help in whatever small way I can for you, and I suspect most of your friends in the biz are too.
To conclude: I wrote most of this on a day off from work where I was too anxious to leave the house. I edited it two weeks later after going on a nice walk around lake Sacajawea. I think that life gets more interesting, more meaningful, and maybe even more manageable every day you live, as long as you keep feeding it with passion and hard work.