Finding the Balance: How Journalists are Learning to Log Off, Even when their Job is Always On

Associate Professor Valérie Bélair-Gagnon’s work aims to help protect journalists in their least regulated space yet: social media.

Few groups can claim a level of bravery and reliability comparable to that held by journalists. The public trusts reporters to dig into stories and unearth the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that truth may be. Investigative journalists and crisis reporters have fearlessly confronted corruption and unethical practices in countless corporate circles and political groups.

But, in a news landscape increasingly dominated by internet access and interaction, today’s journalists find themselves facing a whole new kind of enemy: online trolls. How is a reporter expected to protect their image, mental health and well-being, while simultaneously refusing to compromise on their hard-hitting work?

This question stands at the forefront of Associate Professor Valérie Bélair-Gagnon’s research. Through her work,  Bélair-Gagnon hopes to reprioritize the well-being of journalists in an ever-demanding news industry.

An External Crisis Becomes an Internal Crisis
While conducting her Ph.D. dissertation research for the BBC News in the early 2010s, Bélair-Gagnon gained a unique perspective on the Arab Spring protests and uprisings. With the eyes of the world turned to the uprisings in Tunisia, a new tool was brought to full utilization by the reporting teams: user generated content. 

Suddenly, it was easier than ever for an evening news report to gain on-the-ground photographic and video footage via the internet generated by people already there. Such content was often a much safer and reliable alternative to spending the time and logistical energy necessary to send a camera crew across the world.

But, this leap in content creation came at a price. Even as she saw images from the Middle East that a full news crew may not have been able to capture, Bélair-Gagnon began noticing something else: exhausted journalists. Not only did reporters maintain their usual responsibilities of compiling and writing up-to-date stories, but they also now had to sift through social media posts and content for hours.

And this social media presence did not go unnoticed. In reaching out for content for stories, internet users could now reach back, and sometimes in less-than-kind ways. Journalists faced such harsh harassment and targeting across the web that some would find ways to subtly censor their own work. Without altering the facts of a story, reporters would try to find ways to soften up their work and make it less likely to receive backlash.

To Bélair-Gagnon, this compromise is not acceptable.

Helping Journalists Help Themselves
In her upcoming co-authored book with the University of Illinois Press, The Paradox of Connection: How Digital Media Transforms Journalistic Labor, Bélair-Gagnon, Diana Bossio, Avery E. Holton and Logan Molyneux dive into the ways in which journalists not only connect with other users, but also bring their entire unique selves into the online space. 

When offline stories and online content meet, she believes that “we need to think about digital innovation and digital labor more critically.” In Bélair-Gagnon’s experience, intersectionality plays a central role in labor. Everything from a reporter’s racial and gender identity to their street address can be a barrier to connection, as well as a potential target for would-be trolls.

Bélair-Gagnon is particularly interested in investigating the methods that journalists adapt to preserve their offline mental health and subjective well-being. Some common strategies of disconnection include setting strict working hours, blocking troublesome or malevolent accounts, or even deleting entire social media profiles in order to escape the barrage of digital attacks. However, these are often individual choices that opt to integrate into their lives.

With this book, Bélair-Gagnon and her colleagues are shooting for something bigger. When speaking to the industry as a whole, they pose The Paradox of Connection, her second book, as “a plea to say, ‘How about you make these disconnective practices as part of journalism itself?’” Instead of putting the responsibility on individual journalists to carve out time prioritizing their mental health and well-being, she hopes news outlets will implement more system-wide methodologies that protect their most crucial employees.

Moving Ahead Step by Step
Bélair-Gagnon acknowledges that such a shift in prioritizing the well-being of journalists won’t be easy. She thinks “it is a series of microchanges” that will take the news industry from a rapid-fire content mill to a space in which reporters can always maintain their full humanity. In the end, it will take shifts in both large systems and small local operations to make lasting impacts.

And she’s not alone. In a forthcoming edited volume with Routledge, Happiness in Journalism, individuals who hold roles across the industry, including Bélair-Gagnon herself, provide possible concrete solutions to the mental health crisis taking hold among news professionals. Bélair-Gagnon hopes that work like this will spur further action towards providing infographics and other helpful materials for news agencies to begin implementing immediately.

Today, alongside her research and teaching work, Bélair-Gagnon takes pride in her role as a Mental Health Advocate for the University of Minnesota through Boynton Health. This collection of staff and faculty volunteers spearhead initiatives to improve mental health for students and staff alike. In her assessment, “mental health is a public health problem.” It’s a problem that, she expects, will see real solutions in journalism in the years to come.

Associate Professor, Cowles Fellow in Media Management and McKnight Presidential Fellow Valérie Bélair-Gagnon holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from City, University London and an M.Sc. in Sociology from Université de Montréal.

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon