Thank you for helping readers navigate these tumultuous times, but remember to take care of yourself as you take care of your readers.
Jamie Aten and Kent Annan
Dear Religion Reporters:
The last few years have put a spotlight on how important good religion journalism is during an age of misinformation, when civility and empathy often seem in short supply. That’s why we wanted to write to say thank you for the important work that you all do.
I (JA) have responded to mass traumas, disasters, and humanitarian crises around the globe. The day after providing on-the-ground psychological and spiritual care at a church after the 2019 Aurora mass shooting, I also wrote about what I witnessed the next day at a large community-wide vigil.
To be honest, I found it harder to be there as a writer than as a psychologist. Why? To write what I observed, I had to be aware of everything that was happening around me and open myself up in a way that I don't often experience as a mental health professional. Normally, my focus tends to be on directly helping those who are impacted. Writing about the shooting rattled me in ways I had not anticipated or experienced before. It made me appreciate what each of you do, day in and day out, as religion reporters.
Over the last two years you’ve reported on everything from a global pandemic to politics, racial injustice, climate change, and war. Perhaps you are feeling tired and worn out. Maybe you’re even wondering if the work you do makes a bit of difference during such divided times. If this describes you, know you aren't alone, and we hope you’ll keep reading.
We've seen some religion reporters share enthusiastic social media posts about the remarkable number of religion stories that have become front page news. However, we’ve noticed more and more religion reporters sharing about the challenges they’ve experienced over the last couple of years. Some have shared about how jam packed the year has been for religion stories, along with how tiring it has been trying to keep up with the news cycle. Others have commented about how dismayed they’ve become from witnessing so many tragedies over a relatively short time.
We’ve also noticed deeply human posts where some of you have written openly about the toll being a reporter has taken on you. Some of you have had to endure hateful reader comments (ranging from unfounded accusations to all out lies or even threats) about a story you wrote, your reporting, and even you as a person.
You aren't just taking in the news, a trauma, or a crisis and identifying the most crucial aspects for us. Because of the very nature of religion reporting, with every piece, you also confront issues of humanity, faith, hope, suffering, and doubt—existential issues that have conflicted the human race from the beginning. Your willingness and ability to enter into difficult situations and conversations without making the story about yourself, in order to tell the bigger story, testifies to your talent and dedication.
For these reasons, we want to express our gratitude for your vital work. You make a difference. Too often, people only seem to speak out when they are upset or displeased. It feels important for us to pause to say how much we appreciate not just your stories, but you, a person who has chosen a career path in which you enter into the hard places of life.
Kevin Ellers from the Salvation Army shared at our Disaster Ministry Conference a few years ago that "people are more like duct-tape than teflon." He meant that the stories we listen to or see unfold in front of us don’t just bounce off us, but are actually more likely to stick to and with us. Because your work is so valuable—and has this challenge—we are also writing to remind you to practice self-care.
To all of you reporting on religion, especially now: learn to recognize the signs that you may be headed for burnout. Burnout happens when perceived demands outweigh perceived resources, and that scale may be tipping precariously. For years, news outlets have been combining beats in response to budgetary restrictions, which means you have to cover more topics than ever before, and live tweet while doing it.
If you begin to feel burned out, some answers (which we've written about before) involve planning, prioritizing life activities, staying optimistic, truthing, and maintaining faith. Celebrate small wins, especially completed tasks, which will boost your dopamine levels. Close the computer and hug a loved one, or spend time writing your own letter of gratitude, which science has shown increases oxytocin levels. Exercise, especially outdoors, and implement new sleep hygiene habits to help regulate serotonin. Make time for hobbies you had before the pandemic. Keep in mind: self-care will look different for each person.
We hope you’ll share this article with a colleague (or your favorite writer) who needs to be reminded that they are needed now, and will continue to be needed for whatever is ahead.
To everyone else who is reading their articles like we are: please, look for ways to support these writers. Pray for their discernment and endurance. Pay for their work by subscribing to their news outlet(s). Donate to organizations that provide training and aid for reporting projects to journalists in financial distress. Reach out to a religion reporter to say “thank you" by sending an email, posting to social media, or writing to their editor or publication. Lastly, keep reading and learning from their journalism, which for most writers is the most meaningful form of appreciation and encouragement you could provide.
The Better Samaritan blog is produced by the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, which offers a M.A. in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership and a Trauma Certificate. To learn more and apply, visit our website.