When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, many news networks and print media did their best to convey accurate information about what was happening on the ground. Thanks to the brave and dogged reporting of journalists such as CNN’s Clarissa Ward, and the efforts of many Ukrainians who took to social media to document the attacks, the world witnessed the brutality of Vladimir Putin and his army.
And then there was National Public Radio, which thought it would be a good idea to post a story on its website about “5 Ways to Cope with a Stressful News Cycle.” NPR must have assumed its audience wouldn’t be curious about the many lives at risk in Ukraine, or the danger of an escalation of the conflict with a nuclear-powered Russia. Rather, NPR seemed to be suggesting that the appropriate questions one might ask would include, “What does this mean for my life?”
NPR had lots of ideas. “Don’t forget to care for yourselves,” the story urged and offered some helpful examples, such as performing a “five-finger breathing exercise that can bring you back to the moment.” You should also “nourish yourself,” since “the kitchen is a safe space for a lot of us.” Ukrainian children might be cowering in terror in subway stations to avoid being killed by Russian bombs, but for the NPR listener, “this is the weekend that you finally re-create Grandpa’s famous lasagna or learn how to make a prettier pie.”
While NPR-listening adults were urged to self-soothe with meditation and baking, their children were evidently tough enough to hear the real news in lieu of bedtime stories. “If your little ones are struggling to go to bed at the end of the day,” NPR suggested, “try talking to them about the heavy news head-on.” Sweet dreams, kids!
NPR was appropriately mocked for the tone-deafness of the piece. Even one of its own producers, Monika Evstatieva, was baffled. “I have no idea who allowed this to be published,” she tweeted. “It’s not a reflection of what we’ve been doing every day for the past 6 weeks.”
But NPR’s brand of navel-gazing has become more the rule than the exception among journalists of late. The profession has been steeping in self-care and self-care training sessions, and classes for overburdened journalists have increased significantly in recent years. The NPR story was part of a series called “Life Kit,” produced by a “service journalism team” whose members “deal not only in cold hard facts but also in caring and in kindness” and who “in this turbulent time…invite you to do the same.”
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia Journalism School has extended its scope beyond teaching reporters how to report accurately on traumatic events. The school now offers self-care seminars for reporters, such as the one in 2020 that promised to “explain the rationale for good self-care.” Similarly, the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism organization, offers a course called “Journalism and Trauma” that examines “how covering traumatic events affects journalists.” Among the pieces of advice? “Give yourself affirmations, praise yourself,” and “Find ways to increase your sense of self-esteem.”
Self-care now imbues reporting in mainstream media. The New York Times website features many stories that cultivate an intimate tone: “Hey friend,” the “self-care” home page beckons readers. The section features luxury advertisers and stories about cold-water plunge baths and collagen supplements. Editors doubled down on the self-focus during Covid-19 lockdowns with stories such as “How will you look when you emerge from the pandemic?” and a lengthy examination of burnout among TikTok influencers by reporter Taylor Lorenz. Similarly, the Washington Post has featured numerous self-care stories and even sponsored a live event on the value of self-care with Deepak Chopra and Arianna Huffington.
And why not? Self-care is a conveniently vague yet ubiquitous cultural force these days. In an interview with the Washington Post last year, communications professor Karla Scott offered this tautology: “If you perform any action that constitutes caring for yourself, you are doing self-care.” Much of this is harmless (and lucrative for purveyors of self-care products), and some of it is even useful for journalists. Reporters who cover war or natural disasters do bear witness to terrible things, which can affect their mental health. There is nothing wrong with encouraging greater awareness of the challenges they face.
But very few of the mainstream-media journalists invoking the need for greater self-care are the ones reporting from the front lines of wars. Rather, they are like CNN’s Jim Acosta, whose preening self-importance saturates every page of Enemy of the People, his book about “surviving” the Donald Trump years as a highly paid television journalist. Or Brian Stelter, who experienced similar trauma having to talk about Covid on television. “I crawled in bed and cried for our pre-pandemic lives,” he tweeted.
In fact, there has been a notable uptick since Trump’s election in journalists’ focus on their own supposed trauma, a development that the pandemic only exacerbated. Writing in Slate in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s victory, Aisha Harris argued that “in 2016, self-care officially crossed over into the mainstream.” She went on: “It was the new chicken soup for the progressive soul. The week after the election, Americans Googled the term almost twice as often as they had in years past.” Journalists were uniquely victimized, however, because they had to report on Trump. One young journalist who described herself as “a queer, Muslim woman of color” said that she turned to self-care “to find real ways to block the toxicity I felt from the world around me” after the election.
Journalists are supposed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” as the saying goes. Now, however, an increasing number of them view themselves as the afflicted merely for having to do their jobs, even as the money they earn places them among the elite they are charged with afflicting. A new generation intent on promoting ideological narratives often invokes the notion of reporting “my truth” as superior to old-fashioned objective reporting; in a similar vein, the journalism of self-care claims that the old way of doing things (i.e., keeping one’s personal struggles private) is unsustainable given the uniquely stressful demands journalism places on its workers. These demands are supposedly so terrible that sufferers require the language of trauma to complain about them on social media.
NPR’s article explaining how war offers an opportunity to give yourself a much-deserved spa day is the logical conclusion of this trend. Journalists cease to afflict the comfortable (or, in Putin’s case, the murderously authoritarian) in favor of comforting themselves and their audience. This approach has the added benefit of harvesting profitable clicks from those consumers least likely to get hard news from traditional sources and most keen on tending to their self-care gardens: younger Americans.
But it does not come without a cost. From a reader’s or viewer’s perspective, it is difficult to trust the judgment of a reporter whose Twitter timeline reads like a therapy session sponsored by Goop. And as stories increasingly include emotional opinions about events rather than objective analysis, feelings are elevated over facts. Many reporters also appear eager to make themselves the story, and to play the victim when sympathy and praise are not immediately forthcoming from the public. Journalism as self-care might produce reporters who are better hydrated and rested and brimming with improved self-esteem, but it has also elevated an affliction to which journalists are already prone: solipsism.
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