The IMPACT Project: Zahra Premji – The Reporter

Zahra Premji is a reporter with Global News and has worked around Canada telling some of the nation’s most hard-hitting stories. Today, she shares the story of how working in an industry that requires her to be so “on” all the time has impacted her mental health. She also happens to be a close family friend, and was the reporter who did a story on Surviving by Living soon after it’s launch (the same story that was then shared by Bell Let’s Talk). She understands the power of storytelling and bravely shares a candid story about the challenges that come with her career.


“Don’t worry about what you look like, it’s about what’s on the inside, be happy with what God gave you.”

I remember growing up hearing these words, but not all of them rang true when I jumped feet first into my career that I had been dreaming about since I was five years old: a news reporter on one of Canada’s top news networks.

Before I start, let me warn you. There’s no flow, no proper sentence structure, and no rhyme or reason as to why one paragraph has been placed after the other. I’m a scattered storyteller and I want to share as much as I can with you, so I’m going to bounce all over the place.

My career choice was simple…or so I thought. I wanted to be a storyteller and no one could tell me otherwise. What I didn’t know was that a) I WOULD be judged on my appearance, b) I would receive nasty comments online by trolls, and c) I would see things and experience things that are beyond what the mind can often comprehend. The scariest part is, I’m just getting started. 10 years in to this business, I’ll have seen 100 times more than what I already have today, and I don’t know how my brain will even begin to process that.

Many people, maybe not all, but yes many, think a television reporter comes on TV to talk and read a teleprompter, and then they’re off and they call it a day. What some may not realize is that the anxiety, the stress, and the constant need to be in the know starts well before that. I come into work and most days I don’t know what my story will be and where it will take me. I’ve done stories on mosquitos, I’ve done stories on homeless tent camps where someone found my presence threatening and shoved me to the ground, and I’ve done a story that took me inside the home of a convicted sex offender. As journalists, we’ve all done this. What I think gets forgotten is that our jobs actually involve a different side of reality.

Speaking of reality…the reality of life is that you can’t always be “on.” But, as a journalist, I often need to turn OFF my emotions and personal opinions, and turn ON my charm and your strength. Or just fake it until I make it. I know I’m not the only one that’s come in to work extremely sick, or feeling low after a break up, or having a bad day, but just had to turn it on anyway. When you’re in front of a camera, or about to interview the mayor or premier, that “on” switch is a little more crucial. However, being on so often definitely has its impact on my mental well-being. Once you’re on for so long, it’s often hard to turn off. And with that comes a jittery feeling as a result of always being connected through both my phones, through my computer, through my camera man’s phone at times, through emails, social media, and more.

But then there is the part I have to turn off. Imagine going into a sex offender’s home, being in their bedroom, seeing their things, and breathing the same air. For some, perhaps that’s nothing, perhaps that isn’t going to impact your mental state. But for me, when I had to do that I was shaking while walking in. But I didn’t let that side of me show. Did I need a drink after that? Yes. I’m not saying alcohol is the problem solver for calming you down after a true play on your mental state like that. In fact, it’s probably the complete worst thing to turn to, but at the same time I know you’ve heard it: journalists make good alcoholics. If I had a dollar for every time I left my newsroom hearing someone say, “oh wow, I need a drink (or ten) after this day,” I’d be rich, not working, and living in Europe! Just saying…

Whether I realize it or not, my job truly impacts my mental state in a very weird way. I love being surrounded by friends and family, and going on adventures all the time. But the longer I’ve been in this business, the more I’ve realized how much I value solo time and reflective time. That’s a direct connection to my mental health. I have to take those moments after a long day, a rough day, a busy day, to just breathe, or I don’t think I’ll make it to the next day. But that’s not always an option, and when that happens I just keep on swimming through until a break presents itself.

Everyone in journalism knows that for the most part, lunch breaks don’t really exist. I’ll get lucky if I have time to take a break, but that’s only if I’ve figured out my story, found interview subjects, filmed my interviews, written my story, had my story vetted, written my web post, and then prepared the shorter version of my story. Then maybe I’ll have time for a quick pee or a bite to eat. So I treasure the minutes I do have. Those are minutes to myself that I often need to breathe again, to recharge, and to gain energy to keep on trekking.

Imagine you were stuck in traffic because a fatal car crash blocked the highway. Imagine driving by that scene, closing your eyes for half a second, saying a little prayer, and swallowing your surroundings: the car mangled, flipped over, and police tape everywhere. Now think about what happens after. A family finds out they’ve just lost their loved one. How do you, as a viewer, find out what exactly happened? You turn on the news that evening and find out. That’s where I come in. It’s my job to visit the scene and to be there right away. If I’m “lucky” (I don’t consider myself lucky on this one), I’ll get there before the scene is cleared. I might even see the body under the tarp (yes, I’ve seen this before). I might even see a family member in tears on the sidewalk as they watch their loved one taken away in a body bag. That’s my day, that’s my job, that’s my role. To tell you what’s happened there and to get the “money shot” of the tears streaming down the families’ faces. That’s my job. I feel like a jerk every second of it, and an even bigger jerk when I have to walk up to that crying mother and say, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m from the news. Can I talk to you about your child that just died over there?”

It’s hard to turn off those emotions and I would definitely be lying if I said I’m the tough cookie I’m expected to be and that I haven’t cried while interviewing a mother who just lost her child. I’m a human being, and so are you. It’s important we take a moment to remember that fact, in whatever career path or life move we follow. Have I been told tears are a sign of weakness? Yep. Is it true? Nope. It shows that we can have empathy for the stories we are telling, and I believe that makes us better storytellers. It makes me go out there and be passionate and committed to the story I’m telling. But, does it hurt when I go home? A lot. Does my head spin so much I don’t want to talk to anyone and I start looking up the teen on Facebook that died in the fiery crash and go deep down the rabbit hole of their photos with friends and family? I have definitely done that and it has most definitely messed with my head. But, it’s important to remember that it isn’t just a story; it’s someone’s life and it’s real.

The other day, my coworker and I were just really sad and upset. We both knew why, and often many of us will just proceed with the day. But this time, we decided to talk it out. A missing person’s investigation we had both recently covered suddenly turned into a homicide investigation. A 21-year-old, dead. A 21-year-old we both thought might just come back home when she was ready. That’s heavy for anyone. We needed to acknowledge that and so we did. We teared up, we hugged, we talked about it, and we then proceeded to tell our story. It’s what we have to do to bring the stories to you, and it’s never easy. But, we choose to do it because our jobs expose us to an entirely different aspect of the world that many don’t have the privilege of experiencing.

Is my mental health impacted on a daily basis because of what I choose to wake up and do everyday? Of course! But, talking about it, preparing for the unknown (I know that sounds impossible), and being open to self assess after stories on how I’m doing is all part of keeping the mental health in check no matter what job I’m doing and what story I’ve been assigned to that day.

Mental health – it’s not a dirty word. It’s something we all need to take care of and I’ll admit it isn’t something I’ve always thought about. So, whether a journalist or a janitor, I make sure I keep mine in check because I’d be lying to myself  if I said what I do as a reporter on a daily basis doesn’t IMPACT how I feel or live each of my days.

 

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