Mistakes can engender self-doubt among journalists

IMPOSTER spelled out in blocks (depositphotos)

By Austin R. Ramsey

When journalists make mistakes, the consequences can be far-reaching, affecting consumers, governments and even the economy. But responsible journalists also carry the burden of the errors, and some begin to question themselves.

The “imposter syndrome” lures some journalists into a rabbit hole of self-doubt. It leaves talented reporters restraining themselves under the pressure of the daily news cycle and through the lens of poor personal standards of mental health.

Two journalists I spoke to at a data reporting conference last week said the syndrome is running rampant in newsrooms large and small.

“It’s a phenomenon that conscientious, empathetic people have to signal that they don’t belong in a newsroom,” said Melissa Lewis, a data reporter for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. “If you are the only one who looks like you or you’re not getting the feedback you need, it can be hard to overcome.”

Lewis and Kate Martin, lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press, hosted an unusual panel on the imposter syndrome at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference in New Orleans.

They said that many journalists, particularly from already underrepresented groups, struggle with internal monologues such as “I don’t belong here” and “What if someone finds out I’m not qualified for this job?”

“Imposter syndrome” was coined in 1978 by Atlanta-based research psychiatrists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They found that many people, especially women, struggled with a sinking feeling of “intellectual phoniness” in the workplace. Individuals felt incapable, unintelligent and uncreative, despite evidence to the contrary.

Lewis and Martin said those feelings can be especially biting in the newsroom, an already competitive environment where mistakes can have lasting consequences. Unhealthy coping mechanisms such as bottling up emotions can cause or inflame anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder.

Reporters often blaze new ground. They take on amorphous tasks without clear guidelines or depictions of what success should look like. Without reassuring clues, many reporters drift from project to project not knowing how to understand their own achievements.

The causes, says Martin, stem from internal identity crises, and journalists who find it difficult to accept compliments.

Take this example: A young data reporter goes to her friends, family or partner for reassurance amid a stressful time at work. Each of them can honestly say her ability to build, analyze and manipulate huge datasets for reporting is remarkable, and they tell her that.

“You’re great!” they say, but the young reporter doesn’t buy a word of it. Why? Well, for starters, what would they know? Maybe they don’t even know how to open Excel, let alone code for data.

Besides, journalism can be a lonely world. Those close to her don’t understand her feelings of doubt and uncertainty. They don’t see the many mistakes she’s made and dead-ends she’s encountered.

“People will tell you, of course, you’re not [an imposter],” Lewis said. “There’s a wall in your mind that can intellectually hear what they say, but you don’t feel it.”

Yet with all the shortcomings of a stressful newsroom without many avenues for help, journalists are a resourceful bunch, and Lewis and Martin offered tips for overcoming feelings of imposter syndrome:

1. Internalize your reporting skills.

Journalists trade in facts and evidence, so if you’re not feeling “good enough” in the newsroom, first analyze why that is, then counter with evidence to the contrary, Lewis said. What you’re likely to find is those feelings of inadequacy aren’t grounded in truth.

She said that’s how she came to understand the imposter syndrome and how to cope with it in a reporter-friendly way.

2. Compare yourself to yourself (a year ago).

Having a good role model is rarely a bad thing, but people come into journalism at varying skill levels and with different backgrounds. That’s a good thing, because it promotes diversity, but it can also lead to feelings of jealousy and unworthiness. Sometimes, the best kind of role model is yourself, Martin said.

“Ten years ago, I printed out Excel spreadsheets and did the math by hand,” she laughed. “Now I’m coding in R. You’re not too old; it’s OK if you didn’t already learn something.”

3. Setbacks affect you disproportionately; let them go.

Don’t get me wrong, mistakes hurt — a lot. And they should. That means you’re holding yourself accountable for the major responsibility you’ve taken on as a journalist. But according to Lewis and Martin, journalists struggling with imposter syndrome take everything a little too seriously. Perfectionism, obsession and self-deprecation go hand-in-hand, so giving yourself a break every now and then can go a long way toward healing.

4. Don’t overthink it.

Lewis said she finds it helpful to think about her own thoughts. Sometimes, simply understanding that feeling like being an imposter is natural can make it easier to overcome. She suggests framing thoughts around the fact that you will occasionally have feelings of self-doubt. Recognize them and then actively move on, she said, calling that advice her “love letter to journalism.”

5. Advocate for yourself (especially if you don’t feel like it).

If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome, you’re among the least likely to fight for yourself in the workplace. If you don’t consider yourself good enough for the job you’ve got, you’re not likely to ask your editor for a promotion or a raise.

That’s one of unfortunate casualties of the problem, Martin said. Female journalists, journalists of color or LGBTQ reporters sometimes fail to advocate for themselves, compounding the disproportionate pay they already face.

6. Actively try to define success.

If young reporters don’t know what success looks like in their jobs, they’re naturally going to assume they haven’t achieved it, Lewis said. That can go on for years if a real concept of success never materializes.

But it also offers a unique opportunity. Journalists can set smaller goals for themselves to build a growing sense of accomplishment. Want to learn how to code in R? Work your way through some NICAR tipsheets and cross off a new goal. At the end of the day, no one knows what “good enough” or “success” means, so they have to define that for themselves. It’s like measuring truth in a court of law; it doesn’t have a definition. If you work with your editor on making daily definitions for yourself, you’ll be a happier, more fulfilled reporter.

7. Use ‘imposterism’ to your advantage.

There isn’t an end-all fix to feeling like an imposter. It is a feeling, Lewis and Martin said, and feelings aren’t facts. But that doesn’t take away from how much they can and do affect our daily lives.

Sometimes healthy management is the best you can do, which means harnessing those symptoms of obsessiveness and perfectionism to be a better reporter.

“If you’re finding yourself resisting the common advice of walking around with more swagger, you should continue resisting,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to keep beating myself up, but I want to remain a conscientious, perhaps neurotic, obsessor. After all, no one is right all of the time.”