In My Opinion: Journalism departments don’t do enough to address shyness

Sweaty palms, racing heart, stammering, speechlessness, facial flushing, racing thoughts. Sound familiar? Does this happen when you try to speak with strangers? It always happened to me for years, and it’s a little monster called social anxiety.

Journalism is a rewarding career, especially when you can overcome social anxiety. My struggle  prevented me from doing all I wanted to do as a teenager. If calling takeout terrified me, how could I possibly hope to speak with strangers to write articles on deadline?

Fortunately, Poynter published a useful article about overcoming shyness. While shyness and social anxiety are not the same, I think they are  linked; shyness can develop into social anxiety if it’s not nipped in the bud early on.

Writer Beth Winegarner explains how painfully shy she was as a student, that she couldn’t even read out loud in class when the teacher called on her. Despite being on a higher reading level than her classmates, she would choke up when called on.

Sound familiar?  Like many journalists, she found a niche in her school newspaper but soon realized the catch was overcoming her anxiety.

This is her advice:

1. Use your job as an armor

2. Let your curiosity override your anxiety

3. Do prep work to give yourself confidence

4. Pick up the phone to psych yourself out (my biggest flaw)

5. Remember that reporters make people nervous. They’re more scare of us than we are of them!

6. Keep practicing and finding ways to grow.

That’s easier said than done. Here’s my question:  Why was this issue never directly addressed in any of my journalism classes? A lot of my classmates were shy or got the sweats at the thought of speaking to strangers. It’s not that the issue of shyness is never spoken of in journalism classes. The instructors speak about it in a way that stigmatizes it and makes shy students feel ashamed of voicing their concerns.

These factors effect a journalism student’s ability to reach out to sources, schedule interviews, approach strangers on the street and pick up the phone. How many times have I completely psyched myself out before calling a stranger?I worked through that on my own with years of practice. I pushed myself not only because journalism is my passion, but because  it shamed me to speak about it to my instructors and in front of fellow J-students.

“What would they think of me?” I asked my self. “They’ll tell me I shouldn’t be a reporter because I don’t have what it takes.”  As a result of this shame, I bottled up my concerns and plodded on. Thinking back to those days, I realize I could have done a better job reporting if not for my shyness.

A friend of mine dropped his journalism major because the social contact was too stressful. It makes me sad that so many students with journalistic potential quit because they need to communicate with humans on a regular basis.

This is my point: Shy and socially anxious journalism students need a friendly, non-judgmental space to discuss their fears.

What can journalism faculty do to create a space that makes anxious and shy students feel safe about discussing, facing and overcoming their fears?

I suggest they make classes specifically supporting students whose anxiety majorly affects their performance. These classes should take the form of support groups that also provide information for additional resources on campus.

The class should focus on these general points:

1. Identify the cause of anxiety. What makes the student so nervous?

2. How can student overcome shyness/anxiety to become a reporter?

3. Discuss Beth Winegarner’s tips for overcoming this anxiety. Take each step at a time or as many as each student is comfortable with.

I’m not a teacher, so don’t rely on me for a full-on lesson plan, but these are starting points I think instructors could build off of.

Think of it this way. Shy people tend to be quiet, but quiet people are more observant of their surroundings, their peers, human interactions and are often great listeners. Isn’t it important to listen well and observe much as a reporter?  So, let’s hone those skills and help bring fellow shy journalists out of their shells. The world will benefit in the long run.



1 Comment

  1. I share your concerns, speaking to other people used to frighten me. I remember crying in claas once when I was called to read in front of everyone else. I was in primary school then.

    My journalism class didn’t do much to help build my confidence, if anything, it worsened my anxiety with the various presentations and assignments. What I did find helpful were the group discussions I hate with my mates. Smaller groups are a good place to start

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