Every journalist handles stress differently; some good and some bad

By Ariel Cochran, SPJ Region 3 intern and SPJ Auburn student chapter president

Zak Bennett
Photojournalist Zak Bennett visited Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria for 10 days. He said he believes going to where the danger lies is part of the reality of journalism.
Valerie Wells
Valerie Wells

Senior Reporter Valerie Wells of Galveston Daily News is stressed. Located in Galveston County, Texas, Wells and her team of five reporters clock in over 40 hours a week in order to maintain the oldest newspaper in the state. Wells lives in Galveston, Texas, and experienced the category four Hurricane Harvey firsthand in late August 2017.

“I don’t know that I cope with stress. All I can do is get up and do my job, do the best I can. How do I cope? I don’t know, it’s just part of the job,” says Wells.

According to a 2013 British research study by Rosemary J. Novak and Sarah Davidson in “Journalists Reporting on Hazardous Events,” journalism has organizational risk factors for stress injury including staff shortages, lack of recognition, invalidation of emotional difficulties within organizations and limited access to appropriate support.

For Wells, covering dangerous stories is when her stress is most bearable.

“I find disasters are actually easier,” Wells says. “I am very focused, I feel like I have a mission, I know what to do. I know I have a purpose. For me, the day to day stress is more of an issue.”

Freelance Photojournalist Zak Bennett, who has worked for Vice News and Daily Mail UK, has been in stressful situations throughout his career. He said he believes going to where the danger lies is part of the reality of journalism.

On a recent assignment, Bennett caught the first plane he could come across, which was a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, to spend 10 days in Puerto Rico to document the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

“This has been the most traumatic thing I have seen in Puerto Rico,” said Bennett.

zak bennett (1)
Zak Bennett

In the midst of rubble, no cell service, no internet or electricity, Bennett walked the streets and witnessed the aftermath of the hurricane through his own eyes and the lens of his camera.

“I have been in certain similar situations before. The amount of damage there is in Puerto Rico, there is no way to imagine that or prepare [mentally] for that,” Bennett says. “I just tried to be open-minded and going there with the idea that we were going to shed some light on the situation.”

After returning to the U.S mainland, Bennett said he wonders whether the latest experience in Puerto Rico will affect him negatively moving forward as a journalist.

Dr, Frank Weathers

“Some people thrive on stress, other people crumple under it,” says Dr. Frank Weathers, Auburn University psychology professor specializing in the assessment and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For many, stress — can be a subjective thing, said Weathers. Psychologists suggest breaking down the meaning of stress into two parts:

  • the cause of stress, the stressor
  • perception of stress, the appraisal.

In other words, stressors can be defined as challenges that people feel whether they are prepared for it or not.  If a person feels unprepared for the challenge (appraisal), then that is when stress might develop within a person.

“Part of the appraisal is whether you feel like you have the resources to deal with it [the stressor] or not,” Weather says.

Human beings have an adaptive response in the case of life threatening stressors; a commonly known response is “flight or fight.”

Weathers says, “Flight or Fight kicks your body into gear. Sometimes we shut down and are immobilized. The body takes over and gears you up for adaptive action. We’re made to respond to challenges; the key is that that is supposed to be a short-term thing.”

Another challenge journalists face is that they are sometimes the first responders in an emergency or hazardous event. In the Novak and Davidson study, their discussion reveals that members of the media are increasingly finding themselves first on the scene. In addition, they may end up reporting on an array of hazardous situations throughout their careers.  Similarly, these life events may develop ways to better cope (or not) with stress based on their personality and where they are located.

“People won’t recognize that they are stressed until it starts taking a physical toll on their body,” said Weathers.

The study also notes that journalists might turn to drugs, alcohol and possibly other vices to deal with stress.

“It’s an occupational hazard, and journalists are just trying to get back to normal,” Weathers says. “They’re trying to get to the baseline, to take the edge of the chronic stress lifestyle,” he said.

Chronic stress might lead to the physical effects such as acne, hair loss and pain. These aliments do not usually occur under normal stress levels of everyday life. Weathers says living in a chronic stressful lifestyle might lead to burn out, but not necessarily mental illness.


“Every single disorder, they call it the diathesis stress model, has an underlining vulnerability. You don’t have the disorder yet, but have the vulnerability. When you encounter a stressor and combine the two that is when you develop the problem,” he said.

In order to handle stress, sometimes treatment may be required, says Weathers. He suggests HelpGuide.org to provide recommended tips for everyone, journalists especially, in managing stress.

  • Journalists should identify the sources of stress in their life
  • Create a stress journal to record and organize and identify stress (Actually see the problem through your observations)
  • Replace unhealthy coping strategies (such as alcoholic or drug use or poor eating habits) with healthy ones
  • Journalists should carve out time to include physical activity to increase the release of endorphin (the feel good hormone.)
  • Journalists should connect with other journalists or develop a support system (such as joining your local SPJ professional chapter and getting involved)
  • Journalists should manage time better in order to include physical activity and relaxation into daily life. The key is setting boundaries and finding balance

Journalism is a stressful profession, a stressful lifestyle, but as Novak and Davidson acknowledge in their study, journalists themselves cope well when relying on their colleagues for support and if a newsroom provides stress reduction training.

“I have a pretty realistic understanding that [bad] things are happening around the world all the time,” said Bennett.

“The only thing you can do is tell the story.

[And] Telling the story is more fulfilling.”


Ariel Cochran mug
Ariel Cochran

Ariel Cochran is a senior at Auburn University. Her majors are magazine journalism and Spanish. Cochran is president of the Society of Professional Journalists SPJ student chapter at Auburn University. Cochran is the fall 2017 intern for SPJ Region 3 and will be writing for SizingUpTheSouth.com. Read more about Cochran http://bit.ly/2whQBfj

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