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By Thomas Baekdal - January 2023

The loss of a journalist and the year ahead (2023) for publishers

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to the newsletter. I'm still working on my next Plus report (about the future of print). Each year, I write about 25 reports, being between 25-40 pages long, and so it takes about two weeks, on average, to write.

Anyway, that article is coming, but today's newsletter is about the immediate issues of 2023. In my previous newsletter, I wrote about New Year's Resolutions I think publishers should focus on, but today, let's talk about our immediate concerns around news and depression.


The loss of a journalist

One of the strange things about my job is that I focus on the strategy of journalism, but I'm disconnected from the day to day working of the people of the industry.

What I mean is that I spend a ton of time looking at how we cover things, but I never focus on individual journalists or editors. The result is that every time there is a story about someone in the media getting a new job, facing some kind of obstacle, being arrested, or dying, I generally don't know who that person is.

This happened again this week. Every one of my social channels overflowed with posts about the passing of Blake Hounshell. Until yesterday, I'm sad to say that I had never heard his name before, but as I understand he was a very well-liked and respected journalist at the New York Times.

The reason I want to write about this, however, is because his death is part of a much bigger crisis that we currently face in the media around depression.

Blake, according to the news reports and social posts I read, had faced depression for a long time, often without the knowledge of his peers, leading to him taking his own life.

This is a very sad story, and to people who only saw him as his "outside self", it's a very shocking story. How can people who look fine be in such a desperate situation?

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated example. Over the past decade, and in particular, over the past five years, we have seen a massive increase in depression, anxiety, and stress among everyone connected to the media.

For instance, in a study by Jonas Osmann, Meera Selva and Anthony Feinstein, they found that depression is at very scary levels.

The percentages of journalists exceeding threshold scores for clinically significant anxiety, depression, PTSD and psychological distress were: GAD-7, 26%; PHQ-9, 20.5%; PCL-5, 9.6%; GHQ-12, 82.2%. Journalists assigned to cover the pandemic (n=54 (74%)) were significantly more anxious (p<0.05).
Journalists covering the COVID-19 pandemic are experiencing levels of anxiety and depression similar to those seen in first responders.

But, this problem is even bigger than this because it's not just the journalists who face this, it's also everyone else.

Over the past decade, we have seen very real signs that the public, overall, is getting more and more depressed, and very often this depression is directly linked to what we cover and how we cover it as the press.

According to Gallup, one in four around the world now personally struggle with depression and/or anxiety. That is a scary high number.

YouGov came to the same conclusion. In their study from 2021, they found the same result:

And in a study from October 2022, they found that one in five have been seeking help, which is great, but it's still a massive problem.

But, of course, what we really need to do is to reflect on why this is happening. And, sure, we have had a pandemic, inflation, political chaos in many countries, and a looming energy crisis ... and none of those things helped.

But what we have to remember is that the trend started long before all of these things. In fact, if we look at the period between 2008 and 2020, we see that this trend has been growing rapidly amongst the younger generations for the past decade.

This graph, however, only defines 'major depressive episodes' and one of the things we have to remember is there is a considerable level of taboo around depression, stress, and anxiety overall.

If we instead look at depression by age (at any severity), we see this result from CDC:

The percentage of adults who experienced any symptoms of depression was highest among those aged 18-29 (21.0%), followed by those aged 45-64 (18.4%) and 65 and over (18.4%), and lastly, by those aged 30-44 (16.8%). Women were more likely than men to experience mild, moderate, or severe symptoms of depression.

But again, remember the taboo, in particular among men and the older generations. In countless studies we see that men have a higher tendency to define depression and anxieties as being less important. This means that it's likely that men and older generations do feel more depressed than they will admit in studies.

But, why do we see this trend?

Well, there is all the usual finger pointing. Many people will point towards social media. They will look at the graph above, and say: "Hey look, this trend started when young people started using social media!!"

And sure, there are problems on social media. But we have to look deeper than that. People don't get depressed on social media by seeing videos of a cute bird eating food. They don't get depressed by watching what their friends are up to. And they don't get depressed following creators cooking amazing food, wearing fancy clothes, or doing DIY projects in their homes.

What does create depression is when that discussion turns towards the same things we cover as the press. And we know this. When we look at the news industry, we know that news is a direct source of people's depression. So much that a huge amount of people avoid it.

And we also know that covering these topics is the exact same thing that causes our own journalists to become depressed.

We also know that a huge source of depression is linked to the antagonism we experience every day. In other words, the tone of our interactions have become far more antagonistic, which is extremely unpleasant.

And yes, on social media there is a lot of this. It was because of this that I decided to leave Twitter a month ago. The antagonism on Twitter is just horrendous after Musk took over.

But again, it's not specific to social media. We see the same trend of increasing levels of antagonism displayed in the press. In other words, our journalism has adopted a far more antagonistic tone.

We see this in many different forms.

We see it with how our interview style is polarizing debates in more aggressive ways than previously. Go back, for instance, to US presidential debates from the 1980s. Back then they had a civilized and focused discussion where you actually learned something. Today's debates (not just in the US, but everywhere) are like fights.

We also see it in the journalist's presentation. Here is an example from a newspaper.

This is not a journalistic presentation. This is an antagonistic expression of anger, in the form of an opinion by the journalist who wrote this story.

I cannot stress how problematic this is. We are turning newspapers into platforms of anger, and using clickbait headlines to drive that anger, both on our own sites, and when we share the same stories on social media.

This is not about whether you like Harry or not (we see the same style with so many other articles). It's about the journalistic tone and presentation of the news.

And this opinion is such a big part of this. So many newspapers have massively ramped up their opinion focus over the years. Not just from people being able to publish their opinion, which is very often presented extremely antagonistically and mixed with all the regular news stories on the front page, but the journalism is also extremely opinion-based.

Every time something happens, many newspapers specifically interview the "opposing party" to get their reaction to whatever that story is. And that reaction is to "fight, fight, fight!"

Finally is just the volume of problems people face. I talked about this quote from Ray Kurzweil:

People think the world's getting worse, and we see that on the left and the right, and we see that in other countries. People think the world is getting worse. ... That's the perception. What's actually happening is our information about what's wrong in the world is getting better. A century ago, there would be a battle that wiped out the next village, you'd never even hear about it. Now there's an incident halfway around the globe and we not only hear about it, we experience it.

This is becoming such a big problem because we humans cannot manage this volume of negativity, especially not when there is nothing we can do about it anyway (it's outside our sphere of influence). So, news like this only serves to make people more depressed.

Let me give you an example: Here is a news story published in a national newspaper in Denmark. It's about how twins from Norway died of a drug overdose.

This has no news value for people in Denmark, but as newspapers we force this upon people, this makes us feel sad and miserable about something we can't do anything about.

It's news like this that is increasing the trend around depression. Again, not just for the public, but also for journalists who have to spend their time covering it. And again, when this story is then shared on social media, we spread this sadness to those channels.

So, one moment you see a video of a cat discovering it has ears, and the next you are thrown into a world of sadness having to deal with the death of two young women.

Here is the problem I have with this as a media analyst. This is not the first time I have written about this, nor is it the first time others have pointed this out. On top of this, in a recent study by Reuters Institute, they asked media executives how worried they were about news avoidance (which is caused by the factors above).

So, media executives not only understand that this is a problem, but 72% of them worry about it.

But, here is the crazy thing. When we then look at what the executives think should be done about it, we see this:

On the positive side we see that newspapers want to do more explanatory journalism and Q&A formats. This is great. Both are very powerful, and we saw how useful these formats can be during COVID.

So, great!

But we see that on the negative side, media executives have become more skeptical about solution- and constructive-journalism, inspirational stories, and positive stories. In other words, we are not willing to change any of the things that we know cause depression and news avoidance.

Just think about this. The main reason for news avoidance is that news is making people feel bad, but as publishers, we are expressing skepticism to focus on anything that would change that tone.

As a media analyst, this illustrates two things for me. The first thing is that "we are stuck". As a media industry we are so locked into just this one form of journalism that we seemingly cannot see any other way. And secondly, that we are part of the problem.

When I see the study above, and see how many things media executives are skeptical about, what I read between the lines is that this skepticism is that 'it won't drive as much traffic'.

I mean, let's face it. That's the reason... right?

In fact, I have had this discussion in meetings with publishers. Whenever I have talked about constructive journalism, I have been specifically asked if that could drive the same level of traffic?

And when I can't promise that, instead we just keep focusing on this polarizing, antagonistic and depressing form of news that is creating most of the views today.

So, we are part of the problem. And we know it's a problem.

This is not theoretical. This is not some "future problem". This is a problem right now! ... and yet, as a media analyst, I generally see no change. In fact, if I look at newspapers over the past five years, we have generally become more negative, more polarizing, more anger-filled, and more antagonistic.

We are not acting responsibly, and this needs to change.

The solution to all of this is to address the things that cause this level of depression. In my previous article, for instance, I talked about how to better cover climate change.

But, fundamentally, when someone is depressed, there are three things you should not do.

First, do not fuel that depression, by just bombarding people with more negativity, hopelessness, and stories that we can't do anything about. This type of news adds to the problem.

Secondly, break up the fight. When news starts to feel like every story is a fight, we put a burden on the public that nobody can manage, and the resulting tone creates so many other problems for people, within the news, and outside of it.

And finally, show people the way forward. When people and even your own journalists first get depressed, and it gets so bad that they end their own lives, they do it because they see no hope for the future. They have reached a dead-end with nothing left to look forward to. And a lot of that is coming from how we cover things in the press.

Here is an example:

This was a story that was covered by most of the European press, and it's a typical example of just reporting that something is getting worse. There is no hope in this article, there is no focus on how to fix this. It's just a statement of fact that things are getting worse.

If someone is already in a very depressed state and they see this article, this might be what contributes to pushing them over the edge. And if someone is trying to solve their depression, it's articles like this that will turn them into news avoiders.

We have to learn not to do this style of journalism anymore. We cannot just report that everything is getting worse, and then not try to help people see a way forward.

In fact, over at Mastodon, when I shared something about how newspapers often cover climate change, one of my followers commented this:

Have we all given up, and are now just waiting for our demise?

My answer was:

No, we can fix climate change. Here in Denmark (where I live), we already have days like this, where the entire country's energy production is coming from either wind (light green) or solar (yellow).

Can you imagine how this person would have felt if I just reported that: "Well, the past eight years were the hottest on record", and then just left her hanging with that.

We have a responsibility as the press. A responsibility to society, our readers, the mental health of our own journalists, and to ourselves in terms of addressing the news avoidance that undermines our businesses today.

I never met Blake Hounshell, but let's make sure his death was the last.


Want to know more?

If you want to know more about how news avoidance impacts publishers, take a look at some of the many Plus reports I have written about it:


Support this focus

Also, remember that while this newsletter is free for anyone to read, it's paid for by my subscribers to Baekdal Plus. So if you want to support this type of analysis and advice, subscribe to Baekdal Plus, which will also give you access to all my Plus reports (more than 300), and all the new ones (about 25 reports per year).

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

 
 
 

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé

 

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