When a staff writer from one of the most respected long-form journalism publications sits down to speak with a room full of young journalists, questions about anxiety are bound to come up.

“Anxiety is so at the heart of journalism that it will never go away, and it probably should never go away.”

This was George Packer’s answer to a student wondering if she would be permanently saddled with anxiety as a writer. Several months ago at the University of British Columbia, Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, told a classroom full of soon-to-be writing and journalism graduates—including myself—that working in journalism means existing in a perpetual state of angst. We identified with his reply and responded, fittingly, with nervous laughter.

Choosing the life of a journalist means choosing a life in which problems are entangled in your daily work and there are usually more questions than answers. The digital age has brought about more ways of doing journalism, and uncertainty is inevitable, particularly for recent J-school grads.

Kirk LaPointe is an adjunct professor at the UBC School of Journalism and a long-time Canadian media executive who’s just announced a bid to become Vancouver’s next mayor. With years as a senior news manager and director under his belt, he knows that journalism is often focused on distressing situations.

“The premise of a newsroom is that it’s often predicated on really pursuing what it perceives to be the concerns of people, and those concerns often stretch into anxieties,” he explained.

Simply reading news headlines gives you a glimpse into the types of stories that are most compelling, both for people working in news and news consumers. What grabs your attention and why does it resonate? Sometimes, headlines can be unexpected clues into journalists’ emotional triggers.

“A very wise man once told me that most headlines in newspapers are about emotions come out sideways. So that really can tell you a great deal about the topics that journalists choose,” LaPointe said.

Whether you’re a freelancer on the hunt for your next paycheque or a full-time employee at a major news organization on alert for breaking news, apprehension abounds. The most successful journalists learn to channel this unease and trust experienced editors with strong ethics.

One of the most enlightening exercises that came out of my journalism school experience involved a thorough examination of our own portfolios. The assignment was simple: Look over the stories you spent months reporting on and dig into the specifics. What drew you to that story? Who did you talk to? What was the result? For LaPointe, even the positive stories he covered as a newsroom reporter were often connected to some form of anxiety.

“The stories I pursued had a lot to do with advancement or achievement, accomplishment,” LaPointe said. “And even though those don’t seem to be topics that are really associated with the broad realm of anxiety, they have to do with overcoming, or struggling, or winning the day. So I think that it’s really rational that a lot of journalists are in that camp.”

Some people believe that news organizations thrive on fear-mongering and shock value. Sure, sensationalist stories tend to get attention and stick with the audience, but like any industry, balance is crucial.

“I don’t buy entirely into the Michael Moore view that newsrooms are all about preying on fears. Fear can be in there as part of a package at times for journalists. I just don’t think you can sing that note only and really get very far,” LaPointe said. “I think you still have to be able to provide stories of accomplishment and things that are more positively constructed.”

Packer also noted that anxious feelings can motivate journalists. LaPointe agreed, saying contentment with the status quo does not lead to monumental work. If journalists are not probing and challenging anxieties, there are many risks.

“You will be less of a critical thinker, you will be less restless about researching, and you’ll have a kind of complacency about you that will permit the kind of conventional approach to encroach, and you won’t really get some innovative work done,” LaPointe said.

Tackling tough stories involves anxiety for a reason: those are the stories that can incite change and leave a lasting mark. Those are the stories worth chasing.

So that moment when your hammering heartbeat seems like it must be audible to the person beside you and your palms could serve as miniature Slip ‘n Slides? That could be anxiety—and with it, the potential for groundbreaking work. 

Image via Google Cultural Institute