Spotlight On | Hannah Storm, Headlines Network Founder
“If we want healthier journalism, we need to support the health of journalists.”
Hannah Storm is a journalist, journalism safety expert and Founder and Co-Director of the Headlines Network, an organisation established in 2020 that advocates for improving mental health support in the media.
In this Spotlight On piece marking World Mental Health Day 2022, Hannah discusses what the pandemic exposed about the pressures faced by journalists today, the importance of placing empathy at the heart of the newsroom and shares insights into how industry culture can be improved to provide better space and support for those working behind the scenes, on the stories we read every day.
> Can you give us an insight into your career and what inspired you to establish a mental health advocacy organisation for journalists?
I’ve been working in journalism for more than 20 years, across radio, TV, print and agency media. For almost half of that time, I’ve specialised in media safety and was director of the International News Institute. In that role, I liaised with some of the world’s biggest news organisations to ensure the physical, digital, and psychological security of their journalists wherever they worked.
At the same time as working at INSI, I started to experience symptoms of significant stress related to previous traumas, but – like many who suffer the mental health effects of trauma – I felt isolated and ashamed to share my experiences. When I finally did get help, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. By the time of my diagnosis, I was already recovering. I realised how many of my past career decisions, like working in journalism safety, had been motivated by my desire to support others to stay safe.
At the start of the pandemic, I decided I wanted to find the words to tell my own story publicly, and when I did, I saw it resonate with others.
From there on, I made it my mission to work within the news industry to create more open cultures where hopefully everyone will one day feel safe to be able to speak about their mental health without fear of repercussions. Headlines Network was born of that dream and along with my colleague and co-director John Crowley we facilitate conversations, provide practical tips, training and publish a podcast, to help promote more positive conversations around mental health in our industry.
> Back in 2020 you shared your concerns around media owners and editors failing to take sufficient account of the mental health of their journalists. Has much changed in the wake of Covid?
So much has changed since Covid. By and large, I am seeing more meaningful conversations around mental health and wellbeing in the news industry. Covid has impacted so many people, in many different ways, but one of the big things it has done is impact our mental health, by creating a climate of uncertainty, and a world in which we have seen a significant reset of our ways of living and working.
I worry that many of our colleagues are exhausted, burned-out, anxious, impacted by online harassment, vicarious trauma, still working relentlessly and that there’s a rising sense of people feeling let down by the organisations they work for, faced with falling trust in our profession, and losing their sense of purpose. At the same time there is a huge amount of uncertainty that is causing anxiety – political, financial, climate. We are already seeing a rise in presenteeism, more people taking time off, others leaving the industry. We risk losing our most precious resources – our people. Despite more conversations in newsrooms around mental health, they are still patchy in places, and to me it’s vital that newsrooms wake up to the fact that investing in these conversations is investing in our industry.
I do think the past few years have shown us that journalism is as important as it’s ever been, perhaps more so. It’s a profession that matters – one where we can hold powerful institutions and individuals to account, where we can expose lies and corruption, share life-saving information, life-affirming stories too and amplify the best of humanity.
But we can’t have good journalism unless journalists are well, so we must remember that journalists matter as well as journalism.
> Have you found many stark differences between different types of journalism and their impact on journalists?
Historically there was a sense in journalism conversations that mental health was the preserve of war correspondents and really related to PTSD. Now we are speaking more about the spectrum of issues related to mental health and seeing that people can be exposed to stressors and trauma wherever they work, and that those stressors can accumulate. The rise of online harassment has brought threats and violence to a much broader population of journalists than previously. And this has a real-life impact on their mental health.
During Covid, we saw many community reporters and health journalists taking on a similar role to frontline responders, exposed to significant traumas and then having to take home the anxiety that they might infect their loved ones. Vicarious trauma is also a real issue for many newsrooms, not just with the extensive coverage of the conflict in Ukraine, but any time journalists are exposed to traumatic material. After two years of difficult news, our capacity to cope has been compromised and this is also affecting our resilience.
> You’ve written that empathy is at the heart of great journalism. What does empathy look like in the newsroom?
For me, empathy is the ability to create a space where people are able to know that they are not alone, that they are not judged and that their experiences are valid and matter. I believe this lies at the heart of good human-centred journalism.
I think that it would benefit our industry immensely for us to be able to turn some of the empathy that we perhaps afford our story subjects onto ourselves, and onto those with whom we work.
Too often I hear from people that they feel like cogs in a machine, that they are crying out for their colleagues to ask them how they are, rather than what story they are working on, to thank them for their work, to feel valued for their journalism, not just the number of clicks their copy gets. I honestly believe that empathy can co-exist with due impartiality. When it does and when we employ that empathy, I feel it also helps with our relationship with our audience, and at a time when trust is undermined, surely that has to be a good thing.
> What advice would you offer to a journalist who is feeling isolated or struggling with their mental health?
I’m not a mental health clinician, so the first advice I would offer is seek help if you feel you need it from a medical professional. But, beyond that, speak with those you trust, build a community around you of people who can scaffold you, create boundaries around your professional and personal lives, and find a way of keeping the two distinct from each other where you can.
Remind yourself of what matters; don’t lose sight of the fact that no story is worth sacrificing yourself for, as noble as some news is.
It’s vitally important that there are systems in place in newsrooms that support us and help us cope. But it’s also so important that we find time to prioritise ourselves, though this is not always easy.
I am sure my colleague John Crowley from Headlines Network is tired of hearing me say this, but the first two letters of mental health are ‘me.’ So, in terms of some ABCs of self-care that help me, I find Activity helps – some kind of exercise, ideally outdoors, Breaks – sometimes it’s important to schedule them in to remind ourselves, Community – finding people I trust with whom I can talk about stuff including my mental health…and when we get to Z, it’s about trying to ensure I get enough sleep, which can be easier said than done, so cutting back on alcohol, phones before sleep and trying perhaps to read something unrelated to work.
> How do you think support networks for journalists can be improved in the next few years?
In terms of support networks, it would be great to have more clinicians who speak the language of journalism, more mentor schemes that incorporate mental health into conversations and more investment in peer support programmes. I don’t think I can overestimate the importance of conversations, creating spaces where people can share their stories. We need to invest in the mental health of our media colleagues. It might seem like an icky thing, but this is a bottom-line issue.
If we want healthier journalism, we need to support the health of journalists.
And, where organisations are resource rich, let’s find a way to collaborate so everyone has access to these resources and conversations. The theme of World Mental Health Day this year is ‘make mental health and wellbeing for all a global priority.’ Let’s tweak that slightly and say, ‘make mental health and wellbeing for all a journalism industry priority.’
Hannah Storm is the Founder and Co-Director of Headlines Network. She is the former CEO of the International News Safety Institute and the Ethical Journalism Network, a sought-after speaker, facilitator, trainer and writer. Hannah co-authored the first study into moral injury and the media for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism with Professor Anthony Feinstein and has written extensively at the intersection of gender, mental health, physical and online safety. Hannah is also a qualified Mental Health First Aider with MHFA England. Outside her journalism work, she's an award-winning author of flash fiction and an accomplished marathon runner, and she finds writing and running hugely beneficial for her mental health.
Headlines Network’s latest ‘Behind the Headline’ podcast is available to download and listen to here.
More information about the network’s mental health advocacy work and support is available via their website, https://headlines-network.com/
Further mental heath support is available from specialist support organisations:
InfoLine: 0300 123 3393
24 hour support line: 116 123 (free from any phone)