|For environmental journalists, simply witnessing the aftermath of destruction and its suffering can be traumatic. Above, a member of a Hawaii National Guard search-and-rescue team after the August 2023 Lahaina fire. Photo: US National Guard/Master Sgt. Andrew Jackson, via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).|
Voices of Environmental Justice: To Cover Climate Equity Well, Journalists Must Maintain Mental Health
By Yessenia Funes
About once a month, the end of the world creeps into my sleep.
In the most recent climate-related night terror I can remember, a tornado landed behind me in a mall parking lot. I had nowhere to run. As I thought, “What a way to die,” I woke up in a sweat. Now, I can’t watch news coverage of tornadoes without feeling sick.
I’m not alone: A third of Americans are now dreaming about the climate crisis, according to a survey TIME published in July alongside a story by Kyla Mandel on the growing way climate change is influencing our nights. I wonder how many of these individuals are working journalists?
Covering environmental and climate justice is
hard work. It’s emotional. Holding space
for these stories doesn't get easier.
Covering environmental and climate justice is hard work. It’s emotional. Holding space for these stories doesn't get easier. In the years I’ve been on the beat, it’s actually grown more painful.
I imagine most climate and environmental reporters share this experience. After all, many of us like to say we cover the apocalypse beat. To cope, we try to make light of the climate emergency. But humor only numbs the pain. It won’t make it go away.
Instead, we climate and environmental journalists need real mental health support, especially those unraveling (and confronting) the ways oppression functions in a warming world — women, BIPOC, queer folks.
“There are all different forms of destruction that climate journalists are showing up to report on for the general public,” said Britt Wray, director of Stanford University’s Special Initiative on Climate and Mental Health. “That is taxing.”
Journalists are feeling the stress
Vaishnavi Rathore, the land and climate reporter for the independent Indian news site Scroll, also knows a story is affecting her when it appears in her dreams.
Rathore has been on the climate beat for four years, traveling once a month to various parts of India. In the last few months alone, she’s published stories about internal climate migration separating families, a lung disease killing former miners and melting glaciers in the Himalayas and the floods that follow.
She was recently visiting the Himalayas in India to investigate the impacts of deadly landslides that have been pummeling residents. This is a region she knew well; one of her first jobs was based in the Himalayas. During this recent visit, however, the land looked strange.
“When I was there, things were quite different,” she said. “I don’t remember seeing landslides like this.” Rocks had fallen. Roads were covered in rubble — if there were roads at all. People’s homes and property were destroyed.
On the trip, she dreamt of witnessing a landslide happening. When she returned home, the vision crept into her sleep again.
“This is how I realize that, even in my subconscious, a story is actually weighing heavily on me,” Rathore said. The feeling when she awakes is one many journalists know well: guilt. “I am only dreaming about this, but there are people who have actually witnessed it,” she said.
Witnessing destruction, suffering can be traumatic
Trauma can be indirect, as well as direct, explained Elana Newman, a psychology professor at the University of Tulsa and research director at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia Journalism School. Climate and environmental journalists experience both kinds.
Simply witnessing the aftermath of such destruction and the suffering of others also counts as trauma. Research suggests that many journalists remain healthy despite exposure to such events, but a few will walk away with post-traumatic stress disorder.
‘There are things that are affecting you, and
those are the things that need attention.’
— Elana Newman, psychology professor
“People are going to have reactions, and those are reactions that the industry needs to address,” Newman said. “You may not have post-traumatic stress disorder, but you may have intrusions, which are thoughts about something terrible. Your view about the world may be eroded in ways that are not helpful. You may be more irritable. There are things that are affecting you, and those are the things that need attention.”
Science journalists are especially vulnerable to mental health impacts if they’re also facing harassment. In the age of misinformation, those who dedicate themselves to telling stories about a rapidly warming world or environmental catastrophe must often contend with readers who not only disagree — but who harass writers for their words.
And according to qualitative research shared by two Georgetown University professors, women face a disproportionate burden.
“Science is under attack, and science writers are under attack,” Newman said. “In the past few years, this has become much more salient to us: just how difficult the work is that [environment and climate writers] are doing in the face of audiences that don’t believe you.”
Journalistic ethics can blunt our experience
Every now and then, a story of mine is shared by someone who labels me an activist, or who dubs my work “fake news” because I cover environmental issues through a historical lens that accounts for structural racism, sexism and homophobia.
A few years ago, I received a hateful email where a stranger threatened to sexually assault me for my journalism. It was disturbing. The feelings that follow these attacks are always a whirlwind: disgust, anger, fear.
These emotions are normal, but the rules around journalism ethics and conduct don’t always allow reporters on this beat to feel the full spectrum of what they’re experiencing. That’s especially true for Black and Brown journalists who have seen their peers face retribution for sharing thoughts around other events like the Black Lives Matter uprisings in 2020.
How do you put your emotions aside when
a community that looks like yours is
under evacuation during a wildfire
or underwater after a hurricane?
But how do you put your emotions aside when a community that looks like yours is under evacuation during a wildfire or underwater after a hurricane?
Rebecca Weston, co-president of the Climate Psychology Alliance, hopes to see more news organizations develop a sophisticated understanding of their staff’s mental health needs. She challenges the notion that journalists are supposed to approach their stories from a neutral perspective. How can we be neutral in the face of mass death?
Compassionate editors — are they enough?
Natasha Vizcarra, an independent science writer and editor, has had to grapple with these questions herself. She’s from the Philippines, so her concerns about the climate crisis are personal and urgent.
When deadly wildfires ripped through Lahaina, Hawaii, she worried whether her island country would be next. During a meeting with an editor afterward, Vizcarra was triggered by a conversation on urban forestry, caught off guard by the emotions bubbling up inside her.
“I just started crying,” she said.
Vizcarra apologized and explained. Her editor was compassionate. She listened. She held the silence. She didn’t shame Vizcarra. Supportive editors and newsrooms can do wonders, but journalists need more.
Vizcarra enrolled in a 10-step program by the Good Grief Network that helps individuals navigate the weight of their emotions. The steps vary and don’t need to be followed in any order. The program asks participants to grieve the harm they have caused, as well as to take breaks and rest.
For Rathore in India, rest and recovery are everything. She takes a day off after her intense reporting trips. She runs. She reads. She listens to music.
“The importance of rest cannot be overstated,” said Wray of Stanford University.
Climate and environmental justice are here to stay as beats. For journalists to cover these issues well, we need to take care of ourselves. Newsrooms need to take better care of their staff, too.
Since May, I’ve been meeting with Weston of the Climate Psychology Alliance to figure out what journalists need to protect our well-being. We’re only beginning this work, but I’m hopeful something powerful comes out of it. In the meantime, we can lean on some shared tips and resources I’ve gathered below.
Tips for self-care
- Engage in activities that give your brain a break. For me, that looks like going to the park with my teenage nephew and younger niece.
- Develop rituals that bring you peace. Those working from home may consider lighting a scented candle when they log off to create a different sensory experience during off-hours.
- Request time off after an emotionally taxing story (and share this column with your editors to help your case).
- Reach out to other environmental and climate journalists through networks like the Society of Environmental Journalists and The Uproot Project.
- Find a climate-aware therapist (see a directory below).
Resources and groups
- “Climate, Trauma and Journalism”: Webinar series from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and Journalismfund Europe
- Climate-Aware Therapist Directory
- Good Grief Network
- Climate Critical Earth
- Climate Psychology Alliance
- Climate Mental Health Network
[Editor's Note: Also see our recent feature on this topic, "Why Journalists Should Investigate the Twin Mental Health and Climate Crises."]
Yessenia Funes is an environmental journalist who has covered the justice beat for nearly a decade. She's written for publications like Atmos, Vogue, The Guardian, Earther, HuffPost and more. Her approach to storytelling amplifies the voices of those on the frontline of our present-day ecological crises. Her reporting has taken her to remote Indigenous communities in Nicaragua, the hostile desert of the American Southwest and post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 33. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.