Why Young Journalists Are Prioritizing Mental Health Over Ambition

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When Favian Renkel became a freelance soccer reporter two years ago, he was determined to rise to the top of the field. Then living in Japan, he’d wake at 4 a.m. to prepare for press conferences and report on matches in the U.S., while simultaneously raising an infant son.  

But living through the pandemic, and relocating to San Francisco, made him realize that the competitive drive that quickly boosted his profile in journalism has also pushed him to the verge of burnout. Several times, he felt himself losing interest in the sport he loved.   

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“I woke up one day and realized, ‘I’m here, but what did I learn along the way?’” said Renkel. “If I take a step back, I can really prioritize myself.”

Renkel, 27, has established routines to recharge his physical and mental health. He follows a cardinal rule: no watching or writing about soccer on Sundays. When assigned a major project, Renkel said, he would carve out a four-hour window in the morning for a gym workout or a meditative hike. He makes an effort to wrap up any writing well before midnight.

The havoc the pandemic brought upon the media world was swift and ruthless. By the summer of 2020, 38% of journalists had reported exhaustion and burnout from covering the public health crisis, the election and escalating racial violence, according to a survey by the International Center for Journalists. Over the past three years, scores of young media professionals have quit their jobs or fled the industry altogether to focus on their mental health over the lack of institutional support and job security. For those who have stayed, many knew they needed to create clear work-life boundaries with their employers.

Favian Renkel

Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University who studies shifts in gender, work and family life in the U.S., said young millennials and Gen Zers came of age in a tumultuous 21st century economy that has undermined the time-tested idea that a strong work ethic is the key to climbing the corporate ladder and achieving financial prosperity. Watching their overworked parents didn’t help, either.

“Essentially, what’s been said to younger generations is, ‘You work it out; you’re on your own,’” Gerson said, noting the constant churn of the labor force and the lack of federal protections against the demands of work. “So they’re demanding a new set of rules on labor justice, asking, ‘How can we restructure the nature of work to have it fit into the rest of our lives in a sane and sustainable way?’”  

Journalists are making space for their mental health

Jacky Martiñon, a video editor who started working at NBCUniversal in 2020, said the biggest lessons she learned during the pandemic are to turn down additional work if she’s feeling overwhelmed and take advantage of mental health resources her employer offers. (NBCU Academy is part of NBCUniversal.)

She partakes in the 10 annual therapy sessions her company covers and doesn’t hesitate to request sick days to take care of her mental health. Outside of work, she decompresses by going on routine jogs with her running group.  

“This ‘work, work, work’ mentality we’ve been told our entire lives — that you go to work and you go home — like no, you can take care of yourself,” said Martiñon, 28. “If you’re not well, it’ll reflect in your work.” 

Jezz Chung, a multimedia artist and writer with ADHD, chronic depression and general anxiety disorder, left a public relations job in the fall of 2020 when they realized that media companies weren’t equipped to care for employees with disabilities.

“I was so focused on the company’s mission that I didn’t take the time out to understand what my body needed,” they said.

Chung has since written a book and recorded an audio series to advocate for a more inclusive future for people with neurodivergent needs. Chung said they’ve learned to be more intentional about creating more spaces within their schedule, such as taking breaks between meetings, making time for passion projects and prioritizing therapy appointments.

“Most of my schedule revolves around my healing,” they said, “like going to acupuncture, making sure I have time in my week to take care of my physical and mental health.”

Megan Greenwell, who resigned as Wired.com editor in chief in 2021 over burnout, said many people dismissed her as someone with so much privilege that she could afford to leave a coveted editorial job.

“I mean, yes, I have a husband with health insurance,” Greenwell said, “but I’ve worked extremely hard to get to a position where I could get freelance consulting work.” 

Greenwell encourages young journalists to apply for other jobs if their employers refuse to respect boundaries they set for themselves. 

“If your boss is overworking you and not recognizing that you need time, if you’re not being paid enough and forced to take those midnight shifts, that might not be an immutable fact about the industry,” Greenwell said. “That might just mean your job is bad or your boss is bad.”

Ed Yong (Credit: Urzsula Soltys)

Ed Yong, a Pulitzer Prize-winning health and science reporter for The Atlantic, took a six-month sabbatical last September after reaching a breaking point. Yong described the past three years of pandemic reporting as the most “professionally meaningful” of his life, but it also left him “deeply broken.” Interviewing Covid long-haulers, health-care workers and people who lost loved ones to the virus, often for months at a time, took an immense psychological toll.

“My sleep took a huge hit,” he said. “I was unable to feel joy in daily things. I felt very brittle.”

Before returning to The Atlantic in late April, Yong said, he drew clear boundaries around how much time and energy he’s willing to invest in reporting. He plans to continue to stay off social media as much as possible, which he said has been a “godsend” to his mental health. At the same time, Yong admitted that not many people, particularly early-career journalists, have the privilege to take an extended break or even abstain from Twitter.

“My dream is to have an equitable enough field that the most junior reporter can ask for a break and be given the same kind of support,” he said. “You have to look out for yourself because you can’t do this work if you’re broken.”

Media companies should be equipped to address mental health

Some media experts say if news companies want to retain young talent, they have to reevaluate the notion that breaking a story takes precedence over building sustainable working conditions. 

Mar Cabra (Credit: Nacho Rubiera)

“The power of a break is completely undervalued in journalism,” said Mar Cabra, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist who founded The Self-Investigation, a global nonprofit that aims to create more mentally healthy workplaces in media. “A sustainable newsroom is one where the media enforces the duty of care, where people feel safe and supported throughout the reporting process.”

In the U.S., Cabra said, the generational clash is more pronounced than elsewhere, as young people disillusioned by poor pay and punishing hours can more easily find another media job. Since its launch in 2020, Self-Investigation has trained more than 8,000 journalists and editors on managing the stress and trauma that contribute to burnout.

At a basic level, Cabra said, all newsroom managers should undergo mental health awareness training and proactively check in on their staff throughout the reporting process rather than merely as an afterthought. More importantly, they should develop protocols around trauma prevention and online harassment.

Some media organizations have begun investing more heavily in mental health resources. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, launched a program to train therapists to support trauma-impacted journalists. Axios partnered with the mental health app Ginger to provide one-on-one therapy by phone. Aside from the 10 free counseling sessions, NBC offers other support services like stress management and apartment hunting resources. 

For Renkel, staying mentally healthy and motivated is the key to making a difference in the world.  

“Don’t burn out doing something you’re passionate about because you’ll lose that passion,” he said. “You’re in a race by yourself.”