Three Ways Non-Profit Journalism Organizations Can Help Prevent Journalist Burnout
Duty of Care is the centerpiece of the Global Press nonprofit model as outlined in Cristi Hengranes’ new book Byline: How Local Journalists Can Improve the Global News Industry and Change the World. Duty of Care is the idea that newsrooms bear extraordinary responsibility to their reporters’ physical, emotional, digital and legal security. Brought to life through both ethos and operations, Global Press team members work in a newsroom culture that values their safety above all else and puts that into practice with robust policies, protocols and services.
These short tips are adapted from Byline especially for our readers, and are meant to demonstrate that Duty of Care is achievable, even for organizations with small budgets. In the book, you’ll also find detailed examples of these principles in practice, data and analysis, and interviews with reporters in the field.
1. Define your redlines.
When Global Press consults with other news organizations on how to improve their holistic Duty of Care practices, one of my first questions is always “What are your redlines?”
Without fail, newsroom leaders hate this question. Journalism is an industry of free-speech activists, truth-telling zealots, and often, stubborn idealists. They don’t want their scopes limited or lines drawn around the work they can do.
But redlines are important. Redlines, I frequently argue, are one way that a news organization can communicate to its employees the parameters of their safety.
At Global Press, for example, we don’t open news bureaus in countries where libel is punishable by death. We’ve never been sued for libel. But it’s a risk I’m unwilling to take, especially when truth isn’t a defense against libel in too many places.
Redlines help to create strong, unwavering policies and guidelines for newsroom team members. Redlines are most important when the reporter is in the field and before the piece has been published. Those are the moments in which the news organization has the most control over the well-being of its reporter. Once a story is released, a plethora of digital, legal, and emotional security risks emerge.
Still, the vast majority of risks journalists face can be anticipated. The opportunity to get ahead of digital harassment, ensure legal support, and safeguard the reporter’s physical and mental health are there, and it’s easier to provide that security when you prepare for risks beforehand.
2. Security is in the little things.
There is a perception that all journalist security is prohibitively expensive. But in truth, the status quo is far more expensive. Our industry’s lack of emphasis on Duty of Care is costing people their health, and it’s costing news organizations their best talent.
This profession, this work, is always going to carry risk. So, instead of dwelling on the cost of security, let us collectively refocus our time and energies on mitigating that risk.
Rather than assuming security protocols are too expensive for your small newsroom, you can add a Duty of Care line to every single job description. This unites everyone around the cause and spreads the work among many.
We can also recognize that it’s most often the little things that keep reporters the safest. Things like providing cash up front rather than using a reimbursement policy, always providing protective gear and requiring and paying for safe modes of transport can mitigate many, many risks.
And don’t be shy about talking to funders and investors about the risks inherent to the work. At Global Press, which is about a $6 million-per-year nonprofit organization, we add a 3 percent Duty of Care line to each and every grant. This way, each philanthropic partner shares the cost of the programming, the gear, and the benefits that help to keep our reporters safe.
3. Normalize the ability to opt out
Offering all reporters a penalty-free ability to opt out of risky stories is one of the five essentials of Duty-of-Care, but it is perhaps the most challenging for people on the inside of the news industry.
Despite knowing better, we have a very Hollywoodized conception of journalists—dare devils almost eager to put their lives in danger day after day.
But this image doesn’t correspond to reality. We might assume that someone becomes a reporter because they have a natural appetite for risk, but that is not the case. What motivates most reporters centers more around concepts of justice. Risk is often an undesirable outcome. So, creating a newsroom culture that doesn’t penalize, stereotype or sideline reporters who choose to opt out of high-risk assignments is essential to maintain a safe, well workforce.
The chances that a reporter wants to walk away from a story, especially a big one, are slim. The chances that a news organization will be supportive of that choice are even slimmer.
Of course, walking away from big stories hurts. As I write this paragraph I have six stories whizzing through my mind, stories that were never told because the dangers mounted, and the risk was too great. In each of these six cases, the dangers at hand were different. One case involved the threat of an authoritarian regime. We considered giving the story to an international partner so it could see the light of day, but then we thought better of it. It would be apparent that it came from our reporter. So, we let it go. In another case, after reporting on a conflict between two communities for years, the reporter had to opt out for her own mental health.
The pain and the frustration of the untold stories are not insignificant. But the life and the health of the reporter is more important. Offering the consequence-free opportunity to opt out leaves room for the possibility that the reporter can tell the story another day, in a different way.
“Duty of Care is everything,” Laxmi Parthasarathy, my colleague and Chief Operating Officer of Global Press says in Byline. “It’s not a separate program that sits to one side; it’s in everything. And our team needs to be able to feel it everywhere. From leave policies and insurance benefits to check in protocols and risk assessments. It’s alive in every- thing and everyone is responsible for making it work.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Cristi Hegranes is the CEO and founder of Global Press, a nonprofit news organization that trains and employs local women journalists in some of the world’s least-covered places. She is a recipient of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Journalism Innovation Prize, the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism, and the Grinnell Prize for Social Justice Innovation. Her industry-leading Duty of Care program to prioritize local journalist security received the Chester M. Pierce Human Rights prize from the American Psychiatric Association, and was a Fast Company World Changing Idea in 2022. Cristi has taught at Georgetown and Stanford Universities.