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Dr. Kate West and Leslie Rangel

621. Saving journalism includes improving mental wellness in newsrooms

Journalism has long been the industry where people are kind of expected to deal with traumatic experiences on a regular basis but never to talk about it, seek help for their own emotional responses to awful situations or expect help in learning how to navigate through difficult times.

After decades in the field, Dr. Kate West and Leslie Rangel have teamed up to write a new book, Journalists Break News. Don’t Let It Break You, providing students and professional journalists with some tips, techniques and best practices to help build resilience and coping mechanisms to allow reporters to stay in the field without losing their humanity. 

“It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the business,” says West, now an assistant professor of practice in the journalism department at the University of Texas. “I was in the business for 20 years and didn’t realize how much I was suffering because I was in it. It was part of the mentality. You have your deadlines, you work, you’re always thinking about the next story or the story that’s happening next week. When you’re in news, your mind is always focused on getting the story done, doing what needs to be done. If it means working 10, 12 hours, that’s part of the deal. That can take a toll.” 

For Rangel, her contemplation about mental health and wellness began in 2015 when she had a panic attack while preparing for a live hit on her broadcast. “I felt really embarrassed. I remember my heart starting to race. I felt really emotional. It felt like the world was closing in on me. I was outside and it felt like there were four walls closing in on me in that moment. I didn’t know what to do.” Luckily, she was with a photographer friend who helped her regain composure, but the moment left a mark.

Ten years later, Rangel is now teaching yoga and workshops for journalists on wellness and mental health, something she started doing during the pandemic. 

“At the center of this, yes, our mental health is important, but all we as journalists got into this to make sure that people are informed, that our democracy continues working in the way it’s supposed to and, more importantly, we move toward a society that has more equity,” Rangel says. “Why are we forgetting this really important component that we’re OK to do this stressful job?” 

West used the book in one of her classes for the first time this spring semester. Younger journalism students are more aware of and careful about protecting their mental health and have responded positively to her course and the book. 

“They have gotten into this industry with the purest of heart. ‘I want to go out and cover stories that are important to the public.’ When they get into it, they realize the hard work of talking to people on their worst days is really impactful to yourself. So often we’ve been told to just get over it, move on, ignore it. They don’t want to, which is great. At the same time, the industry has to change to be able to accommodate this or we’ll have a rotating door of journalists.”

If research indicates that 3.5 percent of a population agreeing to make a change is enough to move the needle politically, West and Rangel believe they’re contributing to a better environment for the mental wellness of people with a difficult, emotional profession. 

“We are small but we are mighty. We are willing to change and we need to change,” Rangel says. 

Dr Kate West and Leslie Rangel, authors of the book Journalists Break News. Don’t Let it Break You, which offers solutions to professors and newsrooms to better prepare students and young journalists for the pressure of a career in journalism.

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