How to prevent burnout: Ferguson edition

The unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in the past six months has provided no shortage of high-emotion breaking news, starting with the death of Michael Brown and continuing most recently with someone shooting two police officers during a protest. But covering such an emotional issue for a sustained period of time is taking its toll on local journalists, particularly those who use social media heavily for their work.

“If I didn’t know where my limits were before this, well, I’ve found them,” said Kelsey Proud, engagement editor at St. Louis Public Radio.

Here are tips for keeping cool and staying sane, straight from those who are engaging their communities in St. Louis during crucial moments.

Don’t engage the trolls.

“Specifically with Ferguson, there have been so many people who really are just trolls, and who come out of the woodwork and say things that don’t deserve a response,” said Beth O’Malley, online-content coordinator and reader-engagement editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Because of that, she’s had to adjust how she’s training reporters to use social media, which she calls “disheartening.”

“If you see somebody, and their question doesn’t seem like an honest question, it just seems like they’re trying to get under your skin, ignore them — you don’t have to answer everything,” O’Malley said. “Which is kind of the opposite of what I was trying to tell people. In trainings about Twitter before Ferguson, I would say, ‘Make sure that you talk to people, make sure that you answer questions.’ Now I have to qualify that.”

Try to uphold your policies for commenters, but don’t let it be a time-suck.

“We have tried very hard to let people speak their minds, but if it violates our discussion policy, we take it down,” Proud said. She said the team tries to keep up with comments, but it’s a low priority for them, because the commenting space is so inclined to be awful.

“What’s it worth, time-wise?” Proud said. She says she’d rather spend the time fostering a productive discussion.

At the Post-Dispatch, O’Malley said she would jump into comments with a request to keep comments civil and a link to the Terms of Service, but “it didn’t seem to help.” And on the opinion side, editorial page editor Tony Messenger made the decision in December to turn off comments completely for opinion pieces.

Have someone you can vent to.

Both O’Malley and Proud mentioned the value of having someone offline whom you can talk freely with.

“Sometimes I have to step back and actually literally walk away from my desk, and I’ll go over and rant to a colleague for a minute and then come back and feel better,” O’Malley said.

Unplug. Or at least put your phone down.

Proud says she has to take time to completely disconnect from the Internet.

“I have to, otherwise it’s a 24-hour occupation,” she said.

O’Malley had a similar suggestion: “Feel free to put down your phone. And listen to your family members when they say ‘put down your phone.’”

William Powell, senior editor at St. Louis Magazine, said there is a “mental toll to being around so much anger all the time.” He also recommends unplugging for a day here and there as a coping mechanism.

Recognize when you don’t have to do everything.

Chris King, managing editor of the St. Louis American, said if it’s between spending a little time with his family or reporting out a story, he’s given the story to another reporter “that I know would jump on it and have time to do it.”

He said the weekly’s goal is to empower the black community, “so if there’s a better way to empower our community than doing a piece of journalism ourselves or doing an event ourselves, we’ll just promote someone else’s event or even hand over a really good story idea to someone else and let them run with it.”

Be committed. Keep your goal in mind.

King also said there’s a moment where you just have to take stock of your options and make the decision to go all in.

“I had two options, I told my wife: I can quit my job or become my job,” he said.

O’Malley said there are two main reasons why she hasn’t burned out.

First, St. Louis is her hometown, through and through.

“This is where I went to school and where I’m raising my family, so for me these issues are so important,” she said.

Second, she says she takes a lot of pride in helping readers know what’s going on and helping reporters get their information out there: “That frankly that keeps me going, which I know sounds really la-la land.”

Are you a journalist with tips for preventing burnout? Add ’em as a comment here.

ALSO: How 3 St. Louis newsrooms are engaging readers around Ferguson news

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