Mar is creating a movement in the media sector, inspiring a community of wellbeing agents to establish mental health as a core value for the business and the people working in it, contributing to higher-quality journalism.
The New Idea
The newsroom work environment has historically been one of the most harmful in terms of wellbeing. The concept of “always-on-call” coupled with a macho, hard-drinking, hard-nosed working culture, together with the pressures and strains of an industry facing severe challenges, means that mental health has become one of the biggest challenges for journalists worldwide. These issues have been accelerated and amplified with the pandemic. This affects the news we consume, the rigor with which it is presented, and the quality of analysis offered.
Mar Cabra, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, suffered burnout that led to her abandoning the profession. Once she recovered, she dedicated her life to ensuring that no journalist had to go through the same experience. To pursue her vision, Mar cofounded The Self-Investigation (TSI). This global organization is creating a mindset shift in the media industry and beyond. Her aim is to remove mental health stigma and address the systemic issues contributing to the declining wellbeing of media workers so that together they can sustain the critical role of media in our society.
The Self-Investigation is the first organization that works in a systemic, comprehensive, and preventative strategy that supports the media ecosystem globally (journalists, newsroom management, media companies, journalism associations, unions and educational institutions) to develop protocols, rules and practices that diligently attend to what has become one of the biggest challenges for media workers. Mar is proving that healthier journalists working in improved media organisations are better equipped to produce journalism of higher quality.
The Foundation’s cooperative ethos has led it to establish alliances and partnerships with vital journalism support organizations and universities around the globe – expanding its reach and teaching a new generation of journalists and media managers the tools to manage their and other’s mental health.
Incorporating wellbeing as a critical value means rethinking the way we work. To guarantee that every media and journalism community member is impacted, her strategy is conceived as a cascade effect. The community participants become Wellbeing Agents, inspired and supported to promote a healthier workplace culture within their own companies and communities, creating long-lasting effects that are truly changing engrained toxic cultures.
In three years, The Self-Investigation has contributed to the transformation of the workplace of leading organizations such as The Guardian, Agence France-Press, Zeit Online, the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico and Volant Media, which broadcasts in Iran and Afghanistan from exile. In her constant pursuit to democratize mental health as a core value for everyone, not solely the most privileged and prominent actors, thousands of journalists have participated in The Self-Investigation Academy, an online repository of the organisation’s building blocks for transformational change, available to journalists worldwide.
What is currently happening in journalism follows a broader trend in society: Mental health disorders are increasing worldwide, accelerated by the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. The World Health Organization estimates that anxiety and depression alone cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion per year, mostly in lost productivity. Work is one of the leading factors that affect people’s mental health. Based on a survey by the International Center for Journalists, 42% of journalists reported increased anxiety, 38% exhaustion and burnout, and 70% cited the mental health impacts as the most challenging part of the pandemic.
Mental health is still a taboo, and very few organizations within the media industry are addressing it, despite journalism being one of the most stressful professions in the world: working conditions are precarious, with many freelancers forced to cover numerous stories simultaneously and then manage their publication on social networks. The job is now no longer simply analysis and reporting but also engaging with the audience, moderating comments and discussions raised in social media posts, combatting misinformation and dealing with a polarized world. These factors increase the workload substantially and expose journalists to additional threats such as vitriolic online harassment which contributes directly to anxiety and depression.
Research shows that more than 60% of media workers in countries as diverse as Canada, Spain, and Ecuador reported high anxiety levels in 20223. At least one in five reported depression. Levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and burnout are also on the rise. New research shows that, in the US, 72% of local journalists are experiencing moderate to high levels of personal and work-related burnout. These findings are profoundly worrying both for the affected journalist’s sake and their essential role in the democratic public sphere.
In addition to the complex environment, one of the main causes of poor mental wellbeing is that there are well-established, unhealthy working narratives and practices within the industry caused by unmanageable workloads and the inexistence of recovery time after complex stories. A primordial factor is the wrongful belief that there’s a need to be always-on, support huge amounts of work and create immediate results. Weakness is not accepted and there is great fear about admitting any mental health issue. Leading mental health organisations stress that managing wellbeing in the workplace cannot be one-size-fits-all. Successful organisations tailor solutions and changes to the individual stressors of each industry; the wellbeing of a hospitality worker for example is affected by long hours and the difficulties of a customer-facing job, often resulting in substance abuse. In journalism, anxiety and depression caused by fear of admitting weakness while dealing with complex topics, is a key stressor. The situation is provoking difficult talent retention due to the increased sick leaves related to mental health and journalists leaving the profession for healthier environments. In Ecuador, for example, one-third of journalists said they would quit their jobs and/or journalism if they could.
Similarly, it is increasingly difficult to bring new blood into journalism: a survey in the US showed that journalism is the number one regretted college major. Without independent journalists to cover, analyse, and query candidates and their campaigns, citizens are left to rely on the spin and propaganda that the political machines themselves churn out. Although mental health is only one of the underlying factors that affect quality journalism, healthier journalists, editors and newsrooms will be better equipped to revitalize the industry.
Good mental health management is not prioritized although it is good for business, and essential for talent retention; 81% of employees worldwide would prioritize good mental health over a high-paying job, and 64% admit they would take a pay cut for a job that better supports their mental wellness.
Mar is working globally to prove that a healthier way of working in the media is possible, urgent, and makes smart business sense. Through The Self-Investigation, Mar uses a three-stage creative approach to generate change:
1) Working with newsrooms to change the mindset and establish a new working culture.
Mar’s model is aligned with the recent call of the WHO and the International Labor Organization for new measures to tackle mental health at work. She is working with media outlets in a four-pronged holistic approach to change work routines and the narrative around detrimental practices throughout the whole company –from the journalist to top management. These approaches are: 1) Raising mental health awareness, 2) Equipping leaders with knowledge and tools for policy reform, 3) Providing individual accompaniment and 4) Advising media leadership and human resources professionals on protocols and healthy work processes.
For example, she recently accompanied The Guardian’s investigative team for a period of three months. Key results were new protocols for team communications, feedback, and working hours and a new charter covering internal communications and how they should respect wellbeing. This process has enhanced team trust and cohesion, increasing empathy and openness between colleagues, reducing the generational gap and destigmatizing conversations about mental health and wellbeing.
This top-down approach is one of their biggest areas of expansion, as media companies are becoming increasingly aware of the need to focus on this topic. Mar is working with ten media outlets reaching 500+ editors and journalists from different countries, including Iran and Afghanistan where levels of trauma are huge. To increase her reach to other media outlets, particularly those with less awareness of the importance of mental health, Mar is also participating in many industry conferences and being showcased at relevant journalism-related platforms. For example, she published one of the predictions for journalism in 2023 at Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab amplifying her message to as many key stakeholders as possible.
2) Worldwide community of Wellbeing Agents in the Media
2022 represented a big step forward in the Foundation’s capacity to reach, unleash the potential and engage media professionals anywhere, anytime, through an e-learning and community platform Academy that has already impacted more than 2,000 journalists and editors worldwide. By using technology, the Academy is a cost-effective way to provide inspiration and practical knowledge on how to prioritise one’s wellbeing and mental health.
The resources of the Academy have been designed specifically for journalists by certified experts in stress management and digital wellness with extensive experience in the media sector. By including lived experience and using the latest evidence-based research from neuroscience, mindfulness, psychology, and personal development, these resources are credible and comprehensive and are key in changing journalists’ mindsets as to how to manage frenetic work rhythms in a hyper-connected culture with high-stress levels.
The unique advantage of the Academy is that the corpus of the content of over 100 short videos with practical theory and exercises are the building blocks for leading transformation in any organisation. The self-paced materials are also accompanied by live sessions, which foster secure spaces for sharing and learning in groups. Building the Academy has been key for Mar to partner with prominent journalism associations and media support organizations so they can then provide awareness activities, training, and accompaniment focused on stress management, productivity, emotional regulation, and digital wellbeing in their communities.
On an international, national and local level, The Self-Investigation has collaborated with several crucial press associations and renowned support organizations such as the International Centre for Journalists in Latin America, Middle East and US. They also work with unions on a national level, such as the Union of Journalists of Portugal, and have collaborated with the European Federation of Journalists, the umbrella organization for journalist unions in the European Union. Mar has constituted a diverse and engaged community of journalists and editors that have acquired tools and strategies to support their wellbeing and, at the same time, are committed to the mission of changing journalism's toxic work culture. They have registrations from 70 different countries. The community is very strong in the Americas (North, Central & South) and in Europe. Additionally, thanks to partnerships like WAN-IFRA Media Freedom, The Self-Investigation has built a transformation programme with two cohorts of African and South-East Asian journalists and editors, mostly women, who systematically lack this kind of training and accompaniment.
On her journey Mar discovered that many journalists who were touched by her programme were willing to foster her vision in their local communities. This demand inspired Mar to build a Wellbeing Agents Community (WAC). The WAC is the main point of reference for organisations, companies and individuals who have become “converts” and wish to effect change in their environments. The WAC offers continued support, networking and protocols to allow the Agents to become effective multipliers. It is currently operational in Spanish, and it will soon launch in English.
3) Mental health and wellbeing as a core pillar in the journalism university curriculum.
Mar works with leading academic and journalistic institutions in the UK, the US, Sweden and Brazil to date, to incorporate wellbeing as a core value within the curriculums and prevent new journalists, newsroom leaders and media creators from facing burnout and depression. This equips journalists at any stage of their career, from students to senior professionals.
These partnerships include Oxford University Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (modules in their leadership trainings as well as bespoke programmes for organizations such as the BBC and Reuters), the Journalism Innovation and Leadership program at the University of Central Lancashire (UK, with mentorship and modules on the topic), the Centre for Media Studies at Stockholm School of Economics in Riga (Europe, with training on how to operationalize mental health as a core business value), the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas of the University of Texas (US & Latam, with three massive open online courses in English, Spanish and Portuguese, taken by more than 2.500 people) and the Instituto de Tecnologia e Sociedade of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). Before these partnerships, none of these institutions had ever incorporated any mental health training in their educational activities in a systematic way.
At an undergraduate level she’s working primarily in the investigative journalism curriculums in programs in Spain at universities such as Universidad CEU San Pablo and the Journalism School of Unidad Editorial, one of Spain’s main media groups, with the plan to scale these to other programs and countries in the next 18 months.
Mar has a short- and medium-term evaluation plan via satisfaction surveys and in-depth interviews to identify and analyse the key transformations achieved in terms of wellbeing and the quality of the workplace. It is still early to understand the long-term impact as her idea was conceived only three years ago, and she has been operating as a formal organization for just under two years. Plans are underway for a more advanced evaluation programme specifically looking at increases in quality output of both journalists and organisations. Nonetheless, first indications are positive as over 75% of the sample affirm that:
• They learned critical lessons, expressly referring to ‘before and after’ the programme
• They felt calmer, with new perspectives and appreciated a safe space to talk
• They became better at recognising stress and implementing concrete measures including setting boundaries
• They changed their working habits as well as their relationship with digital devices and tools
• They sought out additional support that they were able to identify and value
Mar’s role as a connector with leading institutions and journalist associations around the globe, together with multi-lingual (mostly English, Spanish, but occasionally Arabic, and Portuguese) online resources and training, have allowed her programme to scale out to most of the regions in the world. Furthermore, amidst the growing mental health needs and given her alliances with spearhead organizations, her model will be scaled deep to other industries, starting with content creators such as influencers and corporate communications.
Mar was nicknamed “the lawyer of the voiceless” as a child as she was always standing up for whatever injustice she saw with her friends and classmates. Her father always worked for NGOs and her mother taught disabled children, so the ethos and conversation in her home focused on helping those less fortunate. Her lack of fear before powerful figures and her need for justice made her the class representative several times in junior school, high school, and university. However, instead of bringing these skills to the service of justice in court, she applied them to bringing justice via storytelling.
From 2004 she worked in various national and international media, including the BBC, CNN+ and later at La Sexta (new national Spanish TV channel), where she co-created an innovative project called Objetivo Solidario, which empowered NGO workers with video skills so they could document their trips to the field and ultimately, provide content from underrepresented regions for TV news.
Working in the newsroom took a toll on her mental health and in 2008, she took a 6-month leave of absence due to diagnosed depression, directly related to work, something she erased from her CV and never mentioned publicly, due to fear of repercussions. In 2009, she received a Fulbright scholarship to study as a fellow at the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism (Columbia University) in New York. During that time, she lost her roommate to suicide due to mental health issues. Her master’s project was on overmedication of psychotropic drugs in the foster care system and was aired nationwide in the US on PBS.
Being at Columbia was a pivotal moment in her career. She came back to Spain as a specialist in the new field of data journalism and she worked systemically to introduce this expertise to the country’s media companies. Through her work leading a non-profit on the topic and key actions, such as training hundreds of journalists, co-founding the first-ever masters in Spain on investigative and data journalism and creating a national conference on the topic, media in Spain was transformed, incorporating data journalism as a key area. Within five years there were specialized journalists on this topic in all major newsrooms in Spain.
At the same time, from 2011 she also worked as an investigative reporter at the prestigious International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, an organization with hundreds of journalists working together on transnational investigations. She was co-founder of its first-ever data team, which is now one of the key areas of ICIJ’s business, and she was also instrumental in the organization’s spin-off to become an independent non-profit.
Mar accumulated many successes, but her physical and mental health also suffered. The most visible effects of sustained severe stress levels were losing an ovary and thyroid inflammation. The hidden one was burnout. It happened in 2017, right after winning the Pulitzer Prize as part of the Panama Papers team, leading her to quit her job.
At the beginning of 2020, she was ready to return to the professional scene – far from a newsroom. She became an Acumen fellow and, while revisiting how she could best contribute to society, COVID-19 brought her attention back to journalism again. Mar realized she couldn't stand still and watch so many journalists facing mental health challenges as the pandemic progressed. In May 2020, she started providing training to equip journalists with evidence-based tools to face the situation emotionally and co-founded The Self-Investigation along with Kim Brice, her personal development coach, who could provide technical content to Mar’s idea, as well as another Spanish journalist and coach, Aldara Martitegui. Her efforts were not just impacting journalism but the right to have a strong fourth pillar of democracy. In Mar’s words, “How are we supposed to receive quality information if those in charge of telling us are sick?”
At the end of 2022, she returned to The Guardian offices in London, not as a reporter, but as a champion of reporters’ wellbeing. She felt enormous joy. She couldn’t think of a better way to dedicate her energy than bringing down the barriers around mental health, reducing stigma in the workplace, and promoting more sustainable cultures of care. “I’m glad I can bring lived experience, my clout in the media industry, and my connections to make change happen faster. I don’t want people to struggle in silence anymore like I did for so many years”.