The emotional toll of investigative journalism
John-Allan Namu is an investigative journalist and the CEO of Africa Uncensored, an investigative and in-depth journalism production house in Nairobi, Kenya. Prior to that, he was the special projects editor at the Kenya Television Network, heading a team of the country’s best television investigative journalists.
Watch the video of John-Allan’s talk
Part of our Global Journalism Seminars series.
Read an automated transcript.
Why we should be more aware of journalists’ mental health
- Some journalists are routinely exposed to traumatic material and old-fashioned newsroom culture has at times encouraged unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking. A 2014 study into the effect on journalists of witnessing images of extreme violence found nearly 1 in 5 respondents drank to excess — 15.4% of male respondents and 17.4% of female respondents. | Learn more
- The changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic also had an impact on the mental health of journalists (as well as the population in general.) Almost eight in ten (77%) respondents to our 2020 Changing Newsrooms Report felt remote working made it harder to build and maintain relationships, with many raising concerns about how to communicate effectively and about the mental health of employees. | Learn more
- Some journalists struggling with their mental health have not received adequate support from their publications. “When I started becoming really sick, I had no experience with clinical depression. I said I needed time off from work, and that’s when this huge battle erupted with my employer, [which] did not believe that I was sick,” journalist and author Jan Wong writes. | Read more
Five tips on how to protect your mental health as an investigative journalist from John-Allan’s talk
1. Remember that your work matters. One of the things that helped John-Allan through a difficult time in which he was questioning his career was reflecting on the work he was proud to have done, especially on the Pandora Papers investigation. “Just knowing that it's out there and it can't be taken back. People can attempt to bury it and people can attempt to do all sorts of things, but it can't be taken back. The genie's out of the bottle, on various previously unknown aspects of offshore finance, etc. And being a part of that community of journalists who worked on the Pandora Papers was a highlight in my career,” he said.
2. Find your pillars. “Find your pillars, the people who are your pillars of strength that you can draw from in those specific situations when you just feel like your well is empty,” John-Allan advised, explaining that through tough situations, a pillar in his life has been his wife.
3. Take care with dangerous stories. “Especially for dangerous stories, have risk assessments, figuring out what the risks are and the lay of the land before you go into it. But also, just recognise that if a story is too dangerous, just pull away and it will be okay. Right? We'll figure out other ways of being able to tell the story,” John-Allan said, later adding: “It's better to lose the story than to lose your life.”
4. Build relationships with investigative journalists in your region. Make contacts in other countries in your region for mutual support, John-Allan said. “I know one day I will need to call on some of these people in case the legal environment in Kenya changes and veers more towards a security state as we're seeing in our region, but also because I know that they're going through certain kinds of restrictions or are reporting in particularly difficult climates that I may not understand, but need at least to support.” He gave an example of one time in which he managed the Twitter account of a Ugandan colleague who was going through an internet shutdown. “When it comes to times in which journalists are in danger, or are facing certain kinds of strains and stresses from the work, speak up on their behalf, because sometimes they just don't have the bandwidth to be able to do so, both as individuals or even within the environment in which they're operating.”
5. If you’re an editor, protect your reporters. John-Allan recalled how an editor’s protection saved his career when he made an unfortunate mistake in his reporting, and how this experience motivated him to do the same when he became an editor. “I think what you need to do is be available to them as a leader, editorially, and show them that not only in person when you're with them but in public, that you support the work that they do and that you stand by them. One of my former editors told me that an editor's job is two things: guidance, so to guide a journalist when they are going wrong, and protection. And what protection means is literally that you must protect them when they are under attack, especially unfairly,” John-Allan said.
The bottom line
Journalism can be a stressful career, and one that exposes especially investigative journalists to distressing material, unfriendly sources and the isolation of secrecy. However, as more journalists such as John-Allan speak out about their struggles, we have the opportunity to reshape this ever-changing industry in a way that provides support for everyone who needs it. For now, investigative journalists (and others) can safeguard their mental and physical health by seeking support both from colleagues and loved ones, supporting others, and taking extra care when working on particularly difficult stories.
If you want to know more…
- Expert Hannah Storm gave advice on how to protect yourself from vicarious trauma at the start of the war in Ukraine in a piece on our website. | Read the piece
- The International Journalists’ Network has a mental health toolkit for journalists. | Explore the toolkit
- Read this interview with John-Allan Namu by Maurice Oniang’o to learn more about his career. | Read the piece