A real happy place I go to while meditating (Morin-Heights, QC).
For this year’s edition of the #BellLetsTalk campaign, I wanted to pose a provocative question: Does working in media pose inherent risks to one’s mental health?
I would argue that it does, and we must all be conscious of the powerful, impactful tools at our disposal every day. Media companies that prioritize access to mental healthcare for their workers — on-air and otherwise — are not only promoting compassionate and progressive corporate health policies, but ensuring the long-term resilience of their workforces and reducing the risks of stressful public mistakes or interpersonal conflicts.
It’s wonderful to see how Bell’s annual campaign has encouraged myself and many media friends to speak openly about their mental health issues, and the vast cultural impact it has had on Canadian workplaces, with many adopting telemedicine and virtual mental healthcare in droves during the pandemic. Throughout my media career, I have relied on mental health professionals a few times to help get through rough patches and wouldn’t hesitate to do so again in the future.
I’ve spoken to therapists about the pressures of living a semi-public life, about having public opinions that upset some people, or about feelings of anger or frustration on the occasions when media has been used to paint a misleading picture of my opinions or work (a professional hazard I’ve learned to accept). I’ve always considered myself to be excessively introspective but the effects our broadcasting platforms can have on our senses of self or humanity at large can only be properly monitored with the help of an outside observer; a mental health professional or at least a knowledgeable friend who can relate to the pressures of mass media.
Over time, at least for me, that pressure of caring about what other people think of me drastically subsided but the anxiety can never go away — nor should it.
From Town Caller to Twitter Callouts
Broadcasting, essentially the act of telling many people something, was historically always fraught with tension and free speech controversy; it may have been Greek playwright Sophocles who in the 440s (BCE) first observed that “no man delights in the bearer of bad news,” a sentiment Shakespeare echoed in portraying much-maligned town callers.
Today’s town callers might be journalists, news anchors, radio hosts, technical producers or even media managers who must, on a daily basis, responsibly process high-profile public conflicts, government negligence and speech dilemmas that have confounded human communicators for as long as humans have been communicating. The responsibility to, for instance, avoid fostering media environments that help hateful ideologies or antidemocratic misinformation flourish is important work that requires a meticulous eye — and a clear mind.
Let’s make one thing clear: North American media workers are typically, but not exclusively, a privileged class of worker. I understand that I could advocate for increased mental health support for a number of essential workers but news media happens to be what I’ve immersed myself in for the past 20 years. I’ve noticed, over the past grueling year in particular, mental health concerns taking their toll on pubic people, especially those from marginalized communities. (Just taking a moment of levity to recognize Mike, the My Pillow guy, who despite his offensive opinions, is still a person who is needlessly suffering.) Kudos to those who’ve been discussing it openly all year long, not just today.
It’s a difficult climate for broadcasters, balancing rising social tensions, life-and-death pandemic reporting and an existential climate crisis brewing in the background; there’s a lot to process, including how to avoid swearing on the air or otherwise upsetting the audience. When you have to be ‘on’ every day, it’s like you aren’t entitled to have a bad day like most workers. And with most jobs, criticism doesn’t follow you home off-hours, via largely unregulated social media, popping into your DMs or mentions, ruining your supper and jeopardizing your brand.
As if all of this chaos weren’t enough, Canadian media companies are seeing ad dollars being transferred to the same tech giants that are replacing our media workers and making the survivors miserable in between shifts, shows or columns. I’m getting to the good news…
Media in Moderation
With the collapse of what’s being described as Trumpism, the Post-Trump Web will have to become something healthier and more civil, lightly self-regulated, I’ve been arguing in vain with anyone who will listen, by a consortium of media and social media companies instead of governments or the status quo, the whims of quirky social network founders. As America debates social media regulation (with Canada as usual sitting on the sidelines, awaiting moral guidance), individuals must take their health in relation to media into their own hands.
As we’ve explored in our working Thinkbait paper and with our Media Moment of Peace meditation exercise for content creators, our new media platforms are designed to keep you “engaged”, or obsessively clicking away on the platform for as long as possible — we now know this model to be predatory and unhealthy for users. Facebook does not hire neuroscientists to make your day better, it’s been said many times by many observers.
With political parties from left to right taking advantage of these platforms to spread their messages with unprecedented efficacy, don’t expect even the most well-intentioned progressive governments to crack down on social media companies until absolutely necessary. In the meantime, it’s up to those heavily invested in our new media ecosystems to police their own behaviour online, checking it against one’s values and frequently applying the classic “would I say it to their face” test.
We all get carried away with the media tools at our disposal and in these fraught times, it’s time to be honest about the attempted hacks of our democracy, and the successful hacks of our minds.
While Canadian media workers are routinely warned about the limitations of traditional broadcasting, web broadcasting isn’t taken nearly as seriously as a set of responsibilities to our fellow citizens. We must take it seriously, self-govern and routinely examine our relationship with media, relying on mentors or mental health professionals if necessary. Our personal and collective wellbeing depend on it.
Dan Delmar is Managing Partner, Communications with TNKR Media.