Journalism is not who you are. This is what you do. – Poynter
On March 10 of last year, I got a call from an editor at The New York Times. It was still the early days of the pandemic, and a medical center in the town I live in decided to reuse one of its garages as a drive-thru site for COVID-19 testing. It would have been one of the first of its kind in the United States. Think of a drive-thru fast food line, but for nasal swabs, my editor joked. Would I be ready for the mission?
You can probably guess how I answered. After all, isn’t being called by The New York Times a dream?
I work as a freelance journalist in Seattle, primarily producing corporate and magazine journalism: stories that require deep sourcing, months of reporting, and very often travel. Covering the latest news – or reporting stories that are related to the news cycle – is usually not my thing. But in early March, the world had stopped. A reporting trip I had planned to South Asia was canceled. And I was out of work.
The history of COVID-19 testing wasn’t the only assignment I took on last year that I would normally consider to be out of my wheelhouse. One weekend in late May, an editor from The Daily Beast contacted me. George Floyd’s protests were underway and those in Seattle were particularly explosive as protesters clashed with law enforcement. Then a small part of town – about a 10-minute walk from my apartment at the time – turned into a “zone of lawlessness.” A Curbed editor wanted an article on what it was like to live there.
I said yes to all of the above. Come to think of it, it wasn’t even for the money. (A few hundred dollars here and there is frankly not enough to cover my cost of living in a city as expensive as Seattle.) I took on these assignments because I felt so deeply aligned with the mission of my job. The news ecosystem was teeming with misinformation, and in my position as a journalist, I felt compelled to bring compelling and accurate stories about what was going on to a wider audience.
Not to mention that it was a pandemic. We’ve all lost the things that kept us sane: socializing freely with friends, going to the gym, or working out in cafes. In a way, work was all I had – and I made it a big part of my identity. In doing so, he burned me.
Scott Reinardy, professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, told me that I am not the only one who feels this deep social responsibility as a journalist.
âThere is a real inherent mission among journalists to go out there and find out truths and facts, and eliminate some of the fictitious material and disinformation,â he said. But too much attachment to work – whether by choice or through a relentless news cycle – can wear us out. (My colleague, Olivia Messer, explored the psychological toll of COVID-19 coverage for Study Hall, for example.)
Journalists identify so much with their profession that even when they leave the field (whether on their own or not), they still identify as a journalist.
Why are journalists like this? Why do we care so much about what we do, and why do we transfer so much of our profession into how we think about who we are?
It doesn’t help that the industry socializes us into believing journalism is a calling. It’s trivial, and it suits us when we want to justify the passion and the purpose that brings us to the profession, but it also makes us supremely exploitable. If we are so drawn to the mission, then we should be prepared to incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt to go to journalism school, take low-paying entry-level jobs, or even sacrifice our own happiness. , our mental health or personal relationships. If we care about spreading history, we should be prepared to be active at all hours of the day, neglect our mental and physical health, or postpone time spent with loved ones. After all, our partners and friends may be more likely to stay, even if the institution of journalism collapses.
Society also has expectations of journalists. that influences the way we see ourselves. Nikki Usher, a professor who studies journalists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the public tends to view us as a “special and rarefied type of person,” which can create a sense of superiority. and distance from everyone.
And it doesn’t help that we are working in a precarious industry. Newspapers or publishers can withdraw without warning. “Because you are not affiliated with any type of long-standing organization, there is no guarantee that the institution will represent you as part of who you are,” Usher said. âSo the profession becomes the norm. “
Of course, it’s good to care about work. Readers can often relate the care taken in a story. But sometimes it can go too far. If you are over-invested in your job, the professional can get personal and affect your mental health and relationships. This is particularly troubling when journalists come under fire, and any attack on your work could also be seen as an attack on you. So what you do for a living can have a lot of influence on your happiness and well-being.
âThere’s professional identity and then there’s personal identity, (which) relates to how you see your purpose, your mission, and your character,â Usher said. “These things are separate, and it’s probably helpful to think of it that way.”
It bears repeating: our identities are more than our jobs. Our identities are our preferences and passions, the philosophies that govern the way we live and motivate us, said Fritz Galette, a New York-based psychologist.
When working with clients to disentangle their profession from their identity, he tries to understand what makes them tick or their vibe. How do they spend their free time? What is their life story? What did they like when they were kids?
I have been forced to ponder these questions over the past year as I grappled with the fact that my dedication to my job was not helping my sanity. With the help of my therapist, I learned that burnout is a fire that keeps on gaining ground. As I worked more, I was only stoking the fire. To close the cycle, I had to put out the flame. And the only way for me to do that was to stop working.
I don’t have the privilege of doing this. Being a freelance writer means that I only get paid for the work I do. But I learned to regularly throw a bucket of water on this flame to control it.
Over the past year, I’ve spent more time connecting with who I am when I’m not at work. I rediscovered my love for the fiber arts: I learned to crochet as a teenager and started knitting. I have spent countless hours exploring the wilderness of my home country. I reconnected with old friends and made room for new ones. Exploring, creating and making connections are persistent themes in my life, both in my personal and professional fields. When I got into the habit of spending time away from earning a living, I realized I liked it – maybe as much as I liked the job.
Many of my colleagues will say that journalism feels like a natural extension of being a curious human being in the world, which makes it even more difficult to separate our lives from our professions. Traits like curiosity or stubbornness may correlate or predispose us to how we decide to spend our time professionally – and in other areas of life – rather than the other way around (i.e. that our work gives us traits that make us who we are).
When I started to realize the distinction between who I am and what I do for a living, I began to draw better boundaries around the latter. I no longer work weekends and no longer cover the news. (I have two Post-its in my office that I read every day: âI don’t have to do everything;â âI won’t be in the whims of the news cycle.â) And I would say these limits haven’t made me feel less of a journalist: I can commit to telling accurate and insightful stories when I put work in a separate box.
Journalism fundamentally trains us to be more observant, analytical and critical of the world around us. When I first stepped onto the pitch some of my colleagues joked that journalists are good at understanding other people and their issues, but terrible at recognizing theirs. What if we turn that journalistic lens inward to think about how we identify with ourselves and how those identifiers serve us or not?
If we spent time exploring the entirety of our stories – not just based on what we do, but who we are – how would we tell the story of who we are?
This article was originally published on November 30, 2021.