Saturday, July 27, 2002

The stress and strain of gathering news
V.K. Kapoor

DEMPSTER said, "Journalism is no easy game if you want to play the game and respect the truth in the morning." Although most mediapersons have a sense of mission, there is no denying that their job is stressful. Studies say that journalists have a "high-risk lifestyle". Interestingly, journalists rank physical danger low on the list of stress-causing factors. They run a high risk of developing attitudinal problems, behavioural problems and intimacy and relationship problems.

As a journalist’s career progresses, he becomes more cynical. No one questions this anymore. The only question is: how cynical will he become and how soon. Some studies suggest that cynicism can be seen developing in the early stages and it just gets worse in later stages of the journalist’s career.

Cynicism leads to the development of negative attitudes. Journalists, more than people in any other profession, are in danger of becoming cynical.


A journalist’s job is stressful, dangerous but necessary. Journalists have a right to expect a good and rich life in return of their hard work and sacrifice. People deal with them differently and treat them differently, even when they are not working. They are never off duty. They become isolated. This segregation leads to many psychological problems, which create negative personality traits. Media organisations require the sacrifice of the individual for the good of society. The "individual" is not a consideration; the "goal" is paramount.

A journalist’s job is reactive, not proactive. They have to react and report, but cannot prevent problems. Journalists have a job that requires extreme restraint under highly trying and emotionally-charged circumstances. No matter what happens, they have to stay calm. This emotional restraint requires tremendous mental energy, much more energy than one needs to express true emotions. Such professional demands are emotionally draining and make journalists more prone to exhaustion outside of work. As a result, they may not want to participate in social or family activities. This energy drain can also lead to professional and social burnout.

Common complaints of agencies dealing with the media include allegations that the journalists have a tendency to deal with major issues in a simplistic and shallow manner, to cover stories without proper research, to display a herd mentality when chasing a major story, to not properly scrutinise the sources’ credibility and to display an apparently arrogant and impatient attitude.

On their part, journalists get frustrated by the antagonism, lack of co-operation and rudeness they frequently encounter while trying to pursue what is, to them, a perfectly legitimate inquiry. They have to work under pressure, make split-second decisions, which are later dissected at length by the public, receive more brickbats than bouquets, and work in stressful conditions. They deal with people, yet run the risk of becoming insular and remote.

Journalists face a different kind of stress in their jobs, called ‘burst stress’. Burst stress means that at times there is an sudden ‘burst’ of stress. In other words, journalists suddenly go from complete calm to high activity and pressure. Two examples of ‘burst stress’ are September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the December 13 attack on the Indian Parliament.

Critical incidents can overwhelm any journalist. Critical incident stress is different in that it directly relates to a dramatic event or events in the life of a journalist and results in a number of debilitating symptoms. A situation beyond the realm of a journalist’s usual experience can trigger this kind of stress. A single experience or series of experiences of this kind can lead to changes in his emotional, cognitive, or behavioural functioning. Critical incidents are sudden and unexpected. They disrupt the sense of control, beliefs, values and basic assumptions about the world in which we live and the people in it. Such situations can involve emotional or physical loss. According to research studies the major stress-causing factors in journalistic work are:

Having a colleague killed in the line of duty

Lack of support by the department or bosses

Disruption of family time and family rituals

Journalism can be stressful on a regular basis. There are many myths associated with a journalist’s ability to deal with a stressful situation. "If you can’t deal with it, find a new line of work", "Keep it to yourself", "Don’t be a baby", are some of the things that a journalist gets to hear in the course of his professional life.

An information overload is swamping the media. Journalists don’t sit around pubs any more hoping to get a good story. They are more likely to be wrestling with the avalanche spewing from their fax machines.

Kirk Lapointe of the Canadian Press had said, "If we don’t get a major story appearing in the other major papers, people want to know why. You have to be like a trader on the floor of the stock exchange — on some days, you have to be willing to trade off an official story for one of your own." People expect TV news to be entertaining and the conflict to be resolved by the end of the programme. The same is expected from the print media: There has to be conflict, there has to be a conclusion of some sort and finality in the stories.

Most media organisations are expected to do more with less as newsrooms prune staff. Unfortunately, this had led to far too many journalists operating over the telephone with little time to do anything except ‘chase quotes’. It also means they work under greater pressure and are more likely to make mistakes.

A major spin-off of media competition is the journalists’ growing intrusiveness, from poking their cameras over walls and into funerals to besieging victims in their constant quest for ‘exclusive’ stories.

The distaste of the public for such voyeurism is generating debate about media practices. It is important, however, to recognise that few journalists enjoy being intrusive. Most act under the instructions of senior newsroom staff. The problem is going back to one’s boss and saying one missed out on a story that all other channels got.

Mediapersons face pressures in covering breaking news. New technologies that have made the journalists’ jobs easier and provided almost instantaneous coverage of news, have also made journalism more competitive. Cellular phones, lightweight cameras providing high-resolution pictures and helicopters with aerial cameras make it extremely easy for TV stations to pounce on latest developments. It also makes it easy to forget that the job of journalists is to be accurate and balanced when covering stories, while minimising potential harm to those involved in the story. Hence, these tools and other technologies must be used with care and good judgement.

To protect the frontiers of liberty, an objective, clinical and analytical reporting of men, matters and affairs is essential. In the fast changing world, media is going to play an important role in informing, educating and entertaining the public.