The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

Mental health and media intimidation

The occasional dehumanization journalists face can clash with the modern sentiment that we should preserve our mental health
Photo courtesy of Washington and Lee University

Editor’s note: This piece is not intended to reflect an editorial stance of the Ring-tum Phi. It is a personal reflection on my own journalistic experiences.

Here is the great conflict of my career in journalism: the profession helps define my sense of purpose and has felt like my calling since age 10. In that sense, it’s great for my mental health.

Journalism also frequently involves bullying, shaming and intimidation. Not great for my mental health (namely, an anxiety disorder).

I’m occasionally reminded that people feel entitled to belittle journalists when an article doesn’t make them feel good. Unfortunately, I received a prime example last week.

The head of the counseling center, Charles Anderson, responded to an article I wrote last week that featured problems and successes of the university’s mental health resources. His response included 1. an insistence that students were wrong about their experiences and needs and 2. an accusation that the article promotes slurs against white men. (Read the article. I’m confused too). He concluded with an incredibly uncharitable interpretation of the piece.

“In sum, I don’t see that your article does any constructive work in the community. Rather, it provides misinformation, allows extreme voices to go unchallenged and unquestioned, and in the end discourages students from using our resources, thereby increasing risk to the community,” he wrote.

(The extreme voices in question, as I replied to him, belong to students of color and queer students).

We’ll set aside the irony of a mental health professional speaking to a student in a way that is villainizing and anxiety-provoking. I think that speaks for itself.

Imagine a professor responding to student work in a manner as bizarre and cruel as this response reads. Yet the tagline “student journalist” somehow gives grown adults license to throw temper tantrums in my inbox.

Not to mention, I’m a client of the counseling center. Needless to say, I didn’t feel safe showing up to emergency hours to handle the intense anxiety and self-doubt a response like Anderson’s evoked.

I write this article not to wax self-pity, but to get to the bottom of why I stay in this profession. I’m mindful of the times I confessed to my co-editor last year, “I think my mental illness will always get in the way of my success in this field.”

I feel that way all. The. Time. Yet I keep publishing things I know will piss people off. What can we make of this?

I muster the courage to remain in this field due to my good days. On those days, the challenging work I’ve done for the Ring-tum Phi is the accomplishment of my life. I am a survivor of sexual violence. Writing about sexual misconduct last year, while triggering, was also incredibly empowering. Bringing to light institutional truths in the face of intimidation and secrecy makes me feel brave, strong, capable and incredibly proud of my coworkers and this paper’s reputation. As a newsroom, we’ve also learned how to respond transparently when we screw up and handle people’s rage with what I hope is consummate professionalism.

Bad days, however, bring more than just hurt feelings. The cruel or unfair comments we get as a newsroom – oftentimes sent directly to me – have spurred anxiety attacks, tears, physical discomfort on campus and, on a few bad occasions, nightmares. Shoutout to my friends, therapist and partner for getting me through the worst times.

My anxiety isn’t the only problem here. Some on this campus echo an anti-media playbook, developed and enriched by former President Donald Trump, that insists journalists are antagonistic, driven by sinister personal agendas and unworthy of empathy. Rather than just being, you know, people working an extremely demanding and high-pressure job.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported in 2020 that “members of the press were regularly booed at Trump rallies, and reporters named in his tweets have been repeatedly harassed online. There also have been credible threats to news organizations, with CNN frequently targeted.”

Anderson’s email emulated some of that playbook. Luckily, the attacks were interpersonal, not physical threats or vulgar insults. In my reply to Anderson, I used a phrase I’ve increasingly been telling sources: “Taking off my journalist cap for a moment…”

Sometimes this remark gives me latitude to be comforting and personable, to tell sources I’m not a zombie hellbent on pestering and prodding for a story. Sometimes this remark is more a plea: Please treat me like a f-cking human being.

Part of how my anxious brain operates involves overanalyzing why people do things. I’m recalling another conversation with a co-editor, in which we wondered if people ignore our requests for interviews or rain criticism just because we’ve done something to lose their trust.

I would feel more peace if the explanation was merely that we are at fault – that the media, and us in particular, have done something to lose public trust. In that case, we could hold town halls. Maybe I could start knocking on sources’ and critics’ doors, explaining how each editorial choice wasn’t made blithely. Maybe we could end these idealized conversations with polite peace. I don’t want to discredit these tactics entirely, because they sometimes work.

But sometimes appeasing tactics still result in hostility or disregard. Anderson still hasn’t responded to my email where I addressed his complaints, explained my intentions for the piece, expressed appreciation for his comments and said I regretted his denigrating tone.

Journalists’ mistreatment, I think, also comes partially from fear. We wield a lot of power, and once a source speaks for a story, their account is in our hands. Speaking to journalists, even though we’re students, involves a frightening power imbalance.

It’s hard to answer journalists’ questions and risk being dissatisfied or embarrassed by how your answers are presented. But speaking as someone who does something hard and risky every time I hit publish, I bet the sources who do cooperate with us wake up feeling more brave, honest and proud than those who hide from publicity.

To Anderson’s credit, he did one hard thing: he answered our questions and made our story better as a result. It was a second hard thing — grace and professionalism in spite of anger — where he failed.

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About the Contributor
Shauna Muckle, Editor-in-Chief

Comments (9)

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  • R

    Roger PaineApr 12, 2024 at 1:21 pm

    I was Editor-in-Chief of The Ring-tum Phi in 1963-64. W&L was all white and all male. In our editorials we urged the admin to recruit students of color. (We weren’t smart enough to add in: recruit women.) The admin’s response was that students of color could apply if they wanted. We shot back: how would they know a school like this wants them? You have to reach out! Years went by before that happened. But when women started coming, that made all the difference — and Shauna Muckle is a difference-maker. The current student body and the school as a whole have been lucky to have her. I still read The Ring-tum Phi every year. With Shauna as one of its editors, the Phi has been brave, searching, comprehensive, and a treat to read. Onward!
    — Roger Paine, B.A. ’64, ODK

  • A

    anonymousApr 11, 2024 at 6:28 pm

    I found it helpful to read the email exchange between Dr. Anderson and Erika Kengni, the author of the April 8th article written about W&L’s counseling center. Dr. Anderson provided the exchange in the comments section. Maybe the same could be done here? There were quotes taken out of context in the April 8th article that, for me, conveyed an entirely different sentiment when read in the context of the email.

  • D

    DanielApr 10, 2024 at 8:44 pm

    Eloquent, brave, funny yet seething. Thank you, Shauna, for your words.

  • A

    AnonymousApr 8, 2024 at 11:38 pm

    Although I don’t agree with Anderson AT ALL, I urge you to please consider taking the high road. My hunch is sources don’t want to speak to you because they’re afraid you might publicly criticize them like you’re doing right now. I also know in the past sources have had issues with you violating their confidentially and promising things you couldn’t deliver. I know you have every right to criticize– but it doesn’t always mean it’s the best idea. Remember to respect your sources, even when it gets hard — I promise you, it’s half the battle.

    • E

      EllenApr 10, 2024 at 4:14 pm

      Hmm. The high road. Why couldn’t the middle aged man who’s job on campus is to SUPPORT STUDENTS be held to the same standard. Flop. Respect is something that people must earn, sharing with the world a way you have been disrespected is not disrespectful. Burning bridges is worth it sometimes….

      Also, why are you patronizing with your weird cheeky “i promise you it’s half the battle” 😭😭😭 I bet ur literally 20 yrs old and acting like u have been in the field for years….

      • A

        AnonymousApr 10, 2024 at 6:42 pm

        Hi Ellen. Isn’t the author of this article around 20 yrs old/still in college? Her words are still worth hearing, and mine are as well, even if you find them patronizing. I do agree with you — respect is something you earn. But it’s a two-way street: if reporters don’t respect their sources then they’re not entitled to anything in return. And I think I know what I’m talking about when I said “it’s half the battle” considering I was a source for them in the past.

      • A

        anonymousApr 12, 2024 at 11:27 am

        Gag that ho Ellen! 😭

        • A

          AnonymousApr 15, 2024 at 1:10 am

          The fact the moderator approved that comment tells me everything I need to know about this paper

          • E

            EllenApr 15, 2024 at 1:46 pm

            Free speech….. that’s what the press the is all about teehee🕴🏻