Last month at the International Journalism Festival, two editors – Megan Clement of Impact newsletter and Ankita Anand of Unbias the News – revealed the preliminary results of a survey among journalists and editors who cover gender news. Alarmingly, more than half of the reporters who completed the survey reported experiencing burnout, an extraordinarily high proportion which Clement deems “unacceptable”. Why are so many journalists experiencing burnout? And how can news organisations diminish their suffering?
Journalists who report on gender issues are constantly pushing against a very heavy door – that of the daily weighty editorial news agenda - which typically only opens a tiny crack for gender-focused story angles. On the rare occasions when reporters manage to squeeze their gender stories through the door, they frequently suffer personal attacks for their reporting, often within seconds of publishing their story. The barriers these journalists face operate on multiple levels: in editorial agendas that deprioritise gender issues, misperceiving them as soft news; in newsroom cultures that deprioritise journalists’ mental health and safety; and at societal level, through the pro-male social norms hardening across the globe.
Journalists working on gender issues are more likely to burn out than other professionals
WHO defines burnout as a workplace phenomenon, a syndrome resulting from chronic and neglected stress in the workplace that leads to feelings of extreme exhaustion, increased detachment from the purpose of one’s job and reduced efficacy.
According to Deloitte’s Women @ Work 2023 global report, 28% of women across 10 countries reported feeling burnt out, while mental health remains a top concern for working women globally. McKinsey’s 2022 Women in the Workplace report found that 43% of women and 31% of men leaders in the US reported burnout . While these levels are comparable to those reported by Clement and Anand among gender editors (27%), the levels of burnout among gender reporters, most of whom are likely to be women, is significantly higher (55%).
Newsroom culture and social norms accelerate burnout among journalists, especially those reporting on gender issues
Three key reasons explain this phenomenon. Firstly, despite rising demand for gender-relevant stories, their global news coverage is in decline. AKAS’ analysis of the GDELT database of millions of stories revealed that in 2022 only 2.1% of online global news coverage was dedicated to gender
stories including sexual violence, childbearing, reproductive health, gender-based discrimination or gender equality. This is 13% lower than in 2018 – the year the reignited #MeToo movement peaked. Making the case for covering these stories is increasingly exhausting for journalists, who are forced to swim against the societal and newsroom tides.
Secondly, the news industry’s blind spot around inclusion, depicted in From Outrage to Opportunity (FOTO), results in news organisations failing to fully recognise the mental health challenges that their staff, freelancers and editors grapple with. Moreover, our research uncovered that news organisations often turn a blind eye to the violence journalists face, both online and offline.
Journalistic culture, which has traditionally exhorted journalists to remain stoic amid personal struggles, is yet to catch up with the urgent need to tend to the mental health and safety of their strained journalists. This lack of institutional support contributes significantly to the mass scale of
burnout among gender journalists.
A senior editor from the global south I interviewed for FOTO reflected on the need for a step change in the support for reporters on the ground. “You’re sending out a young female reporter to quite possibly - almost certainly - be harassed, and sometimes or a lot of the time, by those in power. The advice we had was ‘Grin and bear it’ or ‘It is what it is’.”
Thirdly, there is noticeable pushback against gender equality across the globe, which adversely impacts journalists working on gender-centric stories. 2023 Ipsos research for The Global Institute for Women’s Leadership highlighted increasingly high levels of pushback worldwide against gender equality. For example, six in ten adults globally believe that men are expected to do too much to support equality, the figure having risen sharply in Britain from 29% in 2019 to 47% in 2022. Globally, 49% (vs. 42% in 2019) believe that gender equality has gone far enough.
Journalism’s missing intersectional lens that leaves the suffering of women of colour undetected
Our research for FOTO highlighted that journalism carries a significantly higher risk of burnout for women of colour, but this lens remains hidden because the news industry does not apply a systematic intersectional lens to understand its workforce. Among the senior editors interviewed, women of colour felt disproportionately burnt out, isolated, dismissed or even gaslighted. Their environment, in which they are penalised both for being women and for being from a racial minority, carries an augmented level of stress. This is compounded by the frequent expectation that they should resolve the problem of their own underrepresentation, being thrust into leading DEI initiatives, at the risk of damaging their already slow-progressing unsupported careers.
To diminish burnout among journalists, change must be instigated at an industry, organisational, and individual level.
It is critical that organisations put in place policies that ensure the safety of journalists and protect their mental health. Our evidence shows that this is currently rarely the case. To understand the depth of the safety problem affecting journalists, especially women, organisations should measure the wellbeing of their staff in engagement and inclusion surveys, building on ICFJ’s and WAN-IFRA’s extensive work in this area. IWMF have also launched a free safety training initiative for newsrooms worldwide which all news organisations would benefit from.
Newsrooms must change their cultures, replacing the suck-it-up-and-keep-going attitude to mental health with one that places journalists’ health, safety and wellbeing at the centre of their values. Only then will journalists feel supported in reporting safety issues and burnout, and able to shake off their traditional aversion to “becoming the story”. Given the rate of burnout among reporters, they should become the story and their wellbeing and safety its resolution.