Monday, 4 January 2016

The Drive to Get the Next Story – The Joys and Pressures of Journalism


George writes about the stresses and strains of working in a competitive industry, and that how bottling up one's mental health issues can only make them worse. 

- George Greenwood

I can easily track the decision I made to become a journalist to a single event. In my last term at Oxford, a good friend had arranged an interview with Joseph Nye, a famed professor of international relations, but was unable to attend. Knowing my geekiness for all things foreign affairs, he asked me to do it instead.

The chance to meet the man was an incredible opportunity. I did not expect a small byline and photo in a student paper to transform my life plans.

But I was hooked, a full blown news junky. The chance for others to listen to my views, and above all the chance to earn my crust as a teller of stories, was something I could not get out of my head.
Yet, I have always struggled with mental health. I was rather badly bullied at my secondary school. As with many private schools, this was brushed under the carpet. I vowed to leave the school at 16, and I did, for the local FE college, much to my betterment.

This experience has had two effects upon me. On the one hand, it has been a powerful driver to work however hard it takes to succeed, to make those horrific years worth it. They drove me to Oxford, to The London School of Economics, and they have driven me into a position, if very junior and causal, at The Times at age 22.

However, such drive also has a much darker side, which has not matched well with my chosen career path. It has also instilled strong feelings of self-doubt, which I sometimes struggle to deal with under pressure. If I missed out on a story, lost a contact, or didn’t get an article published, I would suffer from crippling self-hatred. Why wasn’t I good enough? Why didn’t I work that little bit harder. Why was I such a failure? Worse, even if I did succeed, getting a good byline, or a great job opportunity, the high lasted minutes. I could not be happy about my success for more than a few moments. It would never be enough. There would always be someone with a better story, a better job, a better grade in their exams or more of a success at my age. Therefore, by my skewed logic, I would always be a failure.

Worse than this, the competitiveness of the industry, made me refuse to admit this to myself that issues had returned. I had to be strong, stronger and better than the young journalists around me, to buck up, to make up with my failure with another article, another byline or another job opportunity, to work longer hours.

It took a very simple moment to bring myself to return to the doctor. I had been joking with a girl sitting next to me about getting frustrated with the terrible computers in the university journalism department. I had been fuming that they were refusing to turn on. But she remarked to me, once I had finally managed to make the damn thing work: “You still don’t seem very happy.”

I was shaken that it had been so simple see straight through my guards. I sought help the next day.

Journalism rightly has a reputation as being a stressful job. As purveyors of news, we often report on loss, pain and tragedy as well as moments of celebration. Young journalists, in the digital age more than even, face the fear of uncertain employment, as well as the age old fear of rejection, with the steady repetition of having our stories knocked back by news desks before we eventually succeed.

To try to be too hard skinned about this, I have learned is a mistake.  To bottle up such feelings, as men such as myself are especially want to do, only builds up into larger problems.

When we need help, we need to ask for it. The challenge, however, is to convince those who experience mental health difficulties that the whole world will not come crashing down if they seek support.

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