The past year has been challenging for journalists around the globe. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, media professionals were forced to think outside the box to bring life-saving information to their communities.
Many adjusted their workflows, and learned new tools and skills to carry out their reporting.
We asked ICFJ Knight Fellows past and present to reflect on 2020, to glean insight from a chaotic, difficult year. Below, they share their lessons learned and advice for fellow journalists as we move into 2021.
Many of our colleagues this year had to quit their jobs. Fortunately, many of them have taken the time to study new things. I remain deeply convinced that it’s worth every journalist learning how to code, and how to work with open data. These skills don't just support your current work in news and investigations, but also provide a fresh approach to any topic you work on.
This pandemic has given many of us the opportunity to learn new things, and has given us lots of data to practice with. Moving into the new year, let's continue to make space to learn new skills and continue to grow our journalism.
I would say climate change is going to be way more important in the next few years — I expect more and more coverage. I worked on a deforestation project this year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I can see how forests are under threat. [I read] a lot of data and statistics about the impact of deforestation on climate change and global warming, and the effect that this will have on huge numbers of people.
After COVID-19, public health might be another key topic. In a globalized world, we should also think about the role of the World Health Organization because we live in a borderless globe — at least parts of it are borderless — and we all impact one another if we travel around. Journalism should try to continue the work that was started in 2020.
I think more and more journalists should get familiar with artificial intelligence and natural language processing because they’re actually tools that can be used for verification and fact-checking. It’s almost impossible to think that a single human being or a single organization can check the large amount of fake news that circulates online, so we try to use technology to do that.
Try to think out of the box. Try to get multidisciplinary as much as possible. Try to team up with researchers and technologists as much as possible. That’s why we need more of these bridge roles at organizations. People who can mediate between journalists and technologists and designers, people who come from different walks of life, but who have a common mission, which is quality journalism and holding the powerful accountable.
In 2020, a lot of journalists have spent a lot of time covering their beats from their own homes because of the pandemic. I think that next year, when or if things get back to normal, we should make an effort to move away from our homes, back into the field. There is good reporting to be done from a desk, but we know the real value of reporting in journalism is getting out in the field and seeing first hand what is happening in society.
That being said, I think in 2021 computer-assisted reporting will be a major topic, with new technologies and projects that could be groundbreaking in helping journalists with everything from completing petty tasks to analyzing troves of data and documents with ease. We should keep a close eye on AI and automation in journalism.
In 2020, many journalism teams – large and small – faced the most important coverage of our lives: a pandemic that forced us to change coverage strategies, look for better ways to combat misinformation and investigate in difficult conditions. Some of these experiences have been very valuable, and taught us good practices that we should take into account in 2021. What we learned:
- Let's do more service-focused health news. This year, due to the coronavirus, many readers approached the world of science and health journalism for the first time. Let's make them stay on this beat by providing relevant content that is, above all, more utilitarian so they can apply it to their daily lives.
- Let’s continue using data to better inform our readers. Keeping up with the numbers, and the evolution of the pandemic, was a hectic exercise. However, we learned that the most important thing is to not only show graphs with figures, but to choose the data that explains the phenomenon better. Readers want to feel more comforted by at least understanding the reality we face, rather than just accumulating more fear from the unknown.
- Let's keep doing collaborative journalism that includes readers, scientists and, of course, journalists. The pandemic showed us various types of collaboration and solidarity. Only by working together can we reach better conclusions in our reporting.
- Let's continue to experiment with more formats. This year was the age of Facebook Live and podcasts. Let's take advantage of these spaces so we have a better window of communication with our audience. Let's strengthen ties using new mediums so that we can fulfill our main mission: journalism is a service.
Invest in your team: Locked in our homes, viewing each other through the window of Zoom, we got a fresh glimpse into each other’s lives this year – our children, our pets, our personal responsibilities. One of the few silver linings of the pandemic is that many organizations are now exploring how to better support their employees by offering more flexible schedules or accommodating the needs of working parents.
Investors will tell you that a great team is worth more than a great idea because great teams can overcome even the most unexpected challenges. At SembraMedia, we took the step of hiring an HR expert to consult with us about how to support and empower each other in new and innovative ways, how to make meetings more effective and how to have greater empathy for each other during this challenging time. If you’re not doing it already, my best advice as we close this difficult year is that you consider how you can invest in taking better care of your team.