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Home > Publications > Quill > The Tricky Business of Work-Life Balance



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Friday, February 8, 2013
The Tricky Business of Work-Life Balance

The demanding profession of journalism is a never-ending saga of personal vs. professional responsibilities. But does it have to be a painful negotiation?

By Genevieve Belmaker

The demanding profession of journalism is a never-ending saga of personal vs. professional responsibilities. But does it have to be a painful negotiation?

At the start of a career as a journalist, it’s impossible to know what concessions you’ll be required to make. Many of them involve sacrificing day-to-day necessities like sleep. Some are less frequent but just as necessary, such as breaks for things like recreation and exercise. Other concessions are bigger: personal safety, sanity and balance. Then there is the huge risk of getting caught in the line of fire and leaving behind a partner, a child, friends and family.

The Middle East, which has been a major destination for journalists for decades, poses particular and serious risks. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2012 in Syria alone, 33 journalists and one media worker were killed.

Syria has also been a hotspot for abduction, another occupational hazard for some journalists. In December 2012, NBC’s Richard Engel and his two-man crew narrowly escaped from captivity there. As of mid-January, U.S. freelance journalist James Foley was still missing.

You’d be hard pressed to find foreign correspondents who don’t agree that tremendous gambles are a necessary part of the job.

“When you’re a foreign correspondent covering the Middle East, you’re inevitably covering conflict,” said Charles Sennott, vice president, executive editor and cofounder of GlobalPost. “You’re taking huge risks for stories that are big stories.”

Sennott, who has four sons ages 10 to 15, speaks from personal experience. He was the Jerusalem bureau chief for the Boston Globe from 1997 to 2001, during the region’s horrific and deadly Second Intifada. Two of his kids were born in Israel, which came with inevitable stresses and worries.

“We had three young children at home, and the Intifada was really raging at that point, and really all around us because of the bus bombings,” said Sennott, 50. “You’d hear the bang, and you’d have to wait for a moment and see if you heard sirens or if it was just an F-16 breaking the sound barrier. Our kids would be running around in the garden and we would have a moment wondering if I had to go (and cover a bus bombing).”

But he said he wouldn’t change a thing, even with the four kids.

“They have traveled the world,” he said of his children, who he still takes along with him on assignment or to conferences whenever possible. “That is part of the lifework balance for a foreign correspondent. There’s a huge reward: Your family is on the journey with you. I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world, the same way I wouldn’t trade the GlobalPost.”

Other journalists have found a way to take their families on their journey without roaming far from home. Megan Cottrell, a 30-year-old reporter and blogger for The Chicago Reporter, works mostly from home for about 25 hours a week. She and her husband, who works three 12-hour shifts a week as a nurse, trade off taking care of their 1-year-old son with minimal outside help.

“I think in college I always imagined working 40 hours a week, and as I settled into adulthood I realized that wasn’t what I really wanted,” Cottrell said about her professional and parenting choices. “This profession really beats the crap out of your personal life; I think it’s really important (to think) about what it can do to you and setting limits on that.”

Cottrell feels that being part of a generation that has grown up with technology has made it easier to create a situation where she can do the work she loves and be there for her family.

“For me, I want to be at home (with my son),” she said. “I think that is a rich human experience, and I don’t want to avoid it or get out of it. I think this generation of people is interested in figuring out a balance that works.”

But she’s quick to add that she has always had an innate sense of keeping things in perspective.

“Even before I had a kid I was a person who liked freelancing; I liked to cobble things together,” Cottrell said. “I hate working in an office 9 to 5, I hate commuting two hours at a time; I think it’s a waste of time. I enjoy working less and living more; I think it makes me a better journalist and a better worker.”

TRICKY UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES

Other journalists work under conditions that involve bursts of drama interlaced with their daily life at home.

Ron Haviv, 47, is a world-renowned freelance photographer and co-founder of the prestigious VII Photo Agency. Haviv has spent about half of his life working as a photographer, and though he isn’t married and doesn’t have kids, he has had to work to master a balance between his personal and professional worlds.

Haviv estimates that on average he spends a few days to six weeks at a time traveling for assignments, with rare extensions that may last a few months.

“This is the way my working life has been,” he said. “I’ve never had an office job or a regular schedule. More often than not, I’m living on a month-to-month schedule.”

But just because he’s had more than two decades to get accustomed to it doesn’t mean it doesn’t take its toll.

“I’m used to it, and it’s stressful,” he said, chuckling slightly, adding that over the years his working life has been hard on some of his personal relationships, especially in the beginning.

“As I left college and transitioned into this world, I lost a lot of friends who couldn’t depend on my schedule,” he said, adding that there have been other, drastically more serious circumstances. “I’ve been a prisoner a number of times, and that’s been very difficult for different girlfriends.”

However, Haviv adds that even being taken prisoner while doing his job hasn’t derailed him.

“I don’t think I ever rethought my career choice while I was in captivity. One of the times I was pretty sure I was going to be executed and had come to a sense of acceptance and peace with my decisions and the work I have done.”

Ironically, it is the business side of work that has given him pause.

“The times I really debate my career choices are the times when it’s difficult to get published or to get people to pay attention,” he said.

The key for him became moving between the world where most of his work takes place and the world he lives in.

“It took me a few years to understand that my reality was not the state of war, but my life in New York,” he said, adding that younger photographers living in “extreme moments” might find it difficult to relate to something a partner or friend is going through and understand that that is also important.

“If you’re jumping back and forth you want to be able to live in both worlds.”

LESSONS ARE THE SAME

Even journalists living and working in a more predictable circle of work and life find it challenging to maintain balance.

Meghan Glynn, a Web producer at Newsday, is 24 and has been working as a full-time, paid journalist for a little over a year. Her nontraditional schedule of 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. means she gets off work around the time most people — including her boyfriend and friends — are just stepping out to get lunch.

Her original shift was 4 p.m. to midnight. She switched to have more time with family and friends but still finds it tricky.

“I try to go to bed at 9:30 or 10 at the latest, so it does put a damper on when people are going out,” she said. “But with the other (midnight) shift they’d already be intoxicated (when I got off work).”

Glynn is also a volunteer firefighter and has lived in the same small Long Island town her entire life. She likes the continuity of her current job.

“It’s nice to be able to eat dinner with my family and go to get a cup of coffee with my boyfriend,” she said, adding that in an organization like Newsday, the danger of overworking really only comes when an important story breaks.

In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, she was at work four hours beyond the end of her shift and had to be told to leave.

“My boss turned to me and said, ‘You need to go home,’” she recalled, noting that getting too invested in covering a story can come at the expense of your personal well-being. “It’s good to have bosses who know how to say that the storm has passed.”

THE DANGERS OF LOSS

Journalists invested in covering conflict have to weigh the worth of a story against factors like personal safety. It’s a typical consideration in any profession with inherent risks.

Sebastian Junger, a renowned journalist, filmmaker and author of several books, knows that all too well.

Junger, 51, is married with no kids, and he has worked as a long-form journalist and reported extensively on conflict for years. He began to make his living as a full-time journalist after publication of his best-selling book, “The Perfect Storm,” in 1997.

“The foreign reporting I did involved trips of three to four weeks, and because I was a print journalist, most of the work was done at home,” Junger said. “Long-form journalists, the bulk of their work happens back home at their desks. In that sense it’s very much a desk job with occasional intense business trips.”

He said the ebb and flow of working at home and traveling on occasion naturally created a manageable situation in his personal life.

“I never felt like I was trying to balance (personal and professional lives),” he said. “I felt that the two ways balanced each other.”

But not long after the publication of “War,” his reportage book about Afghanistan, things changed suddenly and drastically. While at home in early 2011, he found out his close friend and colleague Tim Hetherington had been killed while working in Libya, along with fellow photographer Chris Hondros.

Junger and Hetherington collaborated to make the war documentary “Restrepo” about a U.S. military outpost in Afghanistan. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

“The situation changed radically when Tim got killed, I think in conjunction with being in my late 40s,” he said. “I decided I wasn’t going to do any more war reporting.”

He wasn’t the only one who took stock of things and made changes after the deaths of Hetherington and Hondros.

“After Tim died and Chris died, an awful lot of guys decided they were going to stop (war reporting),” Junger said. “Every war reporter has reconciled the fact that you might die. When Tim died, I realized you’re risking your own life, but you’re also risking the emotional welfare of those you’re closest to.”

For Junger, who was left reeling with the “tremendous task” of losing his dear friend and colleague, the risk was no longer worth the possible outcome.

“It’s not a legacy that anyone wants to leave their loved ones,” he said. “There’s a point in life when you have to stop hurting people. At some point, you actually have to take care of other people more than you take care of yourself, emotionally.”

Having left the field of war reporting hasn’t lessened his passion for making positive contributions to the industry, though. He founded the non-profit organization RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues), which provides free emergency field medicine training to experienced, published freelance conflict journalists. According to RISC’s mission statement, freelancers comprise the majority of the members of press covering conflict around the world.

Junger also made a documentary about Hetherington’s life that premiered at Sundance in late January, called “Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington.”

Junger thinks it’s important to weigh the value of one’s work against the risks and try to fully understand the choice.

“A lot of reporters, one of the things they are trying to do out on the front lines is have an experience,” he said. “It’s an awesome experience. It gets people to admire you. It’s intoxicating. But that experience doesn’t have that much to do with journalism.”

He adds that “guys shooting guns look the same everywhere,” which makes putting oneself on the front lines not only a risky proposition, but questionable as to its worth in the big picture.

“You don’t want to dress up an experience in the moral cloak of ‘I’ve got to tell the world what’s happening.’ Otherwise you’re weighing risk versus experience. You just have to be honest about which you’re doing.”

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