The stress of being a journalist

Journalists express the countless stresses they undergo in their pursuit to get stories for their readers

“A shedra lam visited my office and pressurized me for two days to reveal the source of a story. He had not only harassed me but created chaos in the newsroom as he was shouting like a lopon in the school. It was in 2007,” said Rinzin Wangchuk, the Dzongkha Editor of Kuensel.  

He added, “At the same time, I was also going through another difficult phase. I was repeatedly cornered and harassed by the affected people. I would like to share one more incident where I was mentally disturbed for about a year and I had to consult one lam who told me to perform a tordo to overcome misfortune and other misfortunes.”

Rinzin said the passion to tell the stories and become a good journalist comes at the cost of not being able to give time to your family and friends and disappoint a few people.

“When I was covering the RICBL’s embezzlement case on the fake medical bills and DSA, the problem began after I covered the story about a legal counsel hired by the employees to represent them before the court. The legal counsel then threatened them that he was withdrawing from legal counsel as Kuensel had ruled that his legal fee was too taxing for the litigants,” he said.

As a journalist, one not only has to see many horrible and disturbing things, but one also has to write critical reports on various issues. How does that affect their wellbeing and mental health? 

Business Bhutan spoke to reporters from various media houses and they said the stories they wrote had impacted their well-being or mental health in one way or another, while a few said they had no such issues.

Journalists face countless stresses, such as the daily grind to get stories in by deadline, dealing with sometimes rude, aggressive, and even threatening people.  This also can take a toll on those they are close to such as the readers, co-workers, family members, friends or spouses.

Rarely is anyone taught how to deal with stress.

Needrup Zangpo, the Executive Director of Bhutan Media Foundation (BMF) said, “Our journalists, particularly those doing investigative stories, encounter stressful situations which can affect their mental health.”

 He said it is high time that a workshop is designed to help journalists cope with stressful situations.

Tshering Palden, the Editor of Kuensel said there is no denying that the pandemic has taken a toll on mental wellbeing. “As journalists, we are used to working under pressure and dealing with stress on a daily basis. But what we are experiencing is something that we have never dealt with. Having said that, we are aware that there are services available and we could get help. But none of the team members has hit that point,” he said.

He said that they try to talk to each other through various social media channels and phone calls every day which helps.

Tenzin Lamsang, the Editor of The Bhutanese, cited some stressors by which journalists are more affected. “Journalists lose access to information and it becomes difficult to do your job in response to critical stories.”

 “Those who give information become smarter; they know that if they don’t give information they make life difficult for him/her. Withdrawal of advertisements affects the economic well-being of media houses and a very common tool is the creation of fake accounts in social media and the spread of all kinds of malicious slander of a journalist,” he said.

Further, he said that reporting during the pandemic was the most stressful for most journalists in the country. 

“After the pandemic, additional pressure came on us, we had to work much harder. News had to be updated online almost every hour. The same journalist works two or three times more because of the pandemic, and it’s more challenging because you cannot move freely and you do not have the same access and you depend on the official to take your calls or not. If the official decides not to answer you, you are done. When there was no pandemic, you could always go to the office and talk to other officials, but during the pandemic, you can only talk to a few officials, and if they do not answer, it becomes difficult for you,” he said.

Bhutanese reporters can handle crime reports because we are used to it, but the last two years since the outbreak of the pandemic have been very stressful for journalists not only in the country but throughout the globe.

Tshering Dorji, former senior journalist of Kuensel, said that not every journalist is affected by the articles they write, but it depends on the area they cover.

“I do not cover much crime or other news that impact my mental health because I have been more involved with business or economic policies. Nevertheless, when it concerns economic sovereignty such as public debt and reserves, it bothers me. Otherwise I have not encountered any major issues. But I am not speaking for journalists who have witnessed crime scenes, experienced war and natural disasters and those that stand as testimony to unnatural events,” he said.

Nima, a bureau correspondent of Kuensel in Gelephu, said there were a few times when following stories were stressful and disturbing, even for a short time. “It was about a common disease among the infants. Visuals from the sources were disturbing to consume, as I was caught unprepared.  There were few other times, especially while following accidents and crime stories,” he said.

“But we get used to it, become mentally prepared on the job as we add more years and experiences,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dechen Dolkar, a reporter of Kuensel, said she cannot remember the stories that affected her mental health, but there are a few stories that troubled her. “I reported mostly business-oriented stories that had less of an impact on me,” she said.

Similarly, Phub Gyem, a reporter of BBS said that she tries to avoid controversial stories and not write on hard news but focus more on feature stories.

Puran Gurung, a reporter of Bhutan Today, said over the years, he experienced some mild yet disturbing threats, and it takes weeks to muster the same energy for the story. 

“Just as JAB has launched a pro bono legal defense for journalists, it should also develop some programs to better manage mental health and also provide practical training on how to deal with conflict. These are some of the challenges facing journalists around the world, and various institutions are working to identify ways forward for journalists,” he said.

Sumitra Pradhan, a producer/RJ with Yiga Radio, said there were several moments where she was mentally disturbed especially when she was doing shows with the LGBTQ members. 

“When they share their stories about how society discriminates them for being different, their pain, struggles and sometimes their suicidal thoughts disturb me a lot. I wonder how one human can treat another human like this?” she said.

She said talking with her friends comforts her.

Sangay Rabten, a reporter of Bhutan Times, said that young journalists might not have faced such issues but experienced journalists have one way or other experienced such issues in their journalism career. “Different journalists write on various issues and the gravity of the toll on their mental health is also different.

Namgay Zam, the Executive Director of Journalist Association of Bhutan (JAB) said it does take a toll on the mental health of a journalist. However, coping mechanisms may differ. Some may be able to cope better than others. It depends on the individual.

“In my case, rape of minors and suicide affect me deeply. I find it very hard to focus on work while following/ covering such stories,” she said.

The only thing that’s stressing her out for now is people’s cavalier attitude towards Covid-19.

“I don’t think any Bhutanese journalist has been trained in safety: both mental and physical. This is an unexplored area for JAB, but I definitely see us prioritizing the safety of journalists and doing something about it,” she said.

Chencho Dema from Paro