The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).
Newsroom managers overseeing COVID-19 coverage "need to become trauma literate," said Cait McMahon, founding managing director of the Dart Centre Asia Pacific in Melbourne, during a webinar Friday as part of ICFJ’s Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum.
Understanding trauma will not only help protect the reporters on your team, but "actually enhances journalism," she said. "You will understand the communities and the individuals you’re reporting on in a much deeper way."
McMahon, along with Egyptian journalist Abeer Saady, a former war correspondent with 27 years of experience in conflict zones, joined ICFJ's Global Director of Research Dr. Julie Posetti for a discussion about the threats reporters are facing as they cover the pandemic, how they can protect themselves and how their employers can support them.
Here are more highlights from the conversation:
On staying safe while covering the pandemic
Saady: "You should not sacrifice your safety to go into a high-risk zone if you don’t have the appropriate equipment," she said. “You should try to work remotely."
Saady: “The important thing is equipment, such as masks, gloves and other protection. This is the responsibility of the news organization. Often, journalists are not well- equipped enough. Some countries, like Germany, have better protection [for their employees] than others.”
Saady: “There also are ethical issues,” she said. “Some journalists are pushed to go into the field, which is really endangering their lives. You have to convince them to stay home and stay safe.”
McMahon: "There is a view in some sectors of society that anything psychological is about weakness. Anything about emotion is about weakness. It’s not. I think managers and editors need to be more aware of that,” she said. "They need to be alert and to provide safe spaces for journalists to talk about these things, to create opportunities for social connections as much as possible."
On the challenges journalists are facing during the crisis
McMahon: “We all are in the same storm, but not necessarily in the same boat. We experience this in different ways. Journalists that are losing their jobs are experiencing a whole different realm of issues compared to those still working as staffers. There is high concern for family and infecting other people,” she said. “You never know when you’re going to get this and pass it on. There’s much higher rates of distress, of anxiety, depression than I’ve seen before," when journalists reported on other traumatic events.”
Saady said journalists are also at risk of attack. "Prior to coming on the webinar, I checked the tracker International Press Institute uses to monitor attacks on journalists connected to the COVID-19 crisis. They listed about 36 verbal and physical attacks on journalists around the world. These include attacks that are driven by political demonization of journalists as fake news.”
McMahon noted that online abuse is on the rise. "What I have been speaking to journalists about is to plan what you will do if you are attacked.”
On coping with the psychological effects of covering the pandemic
McMahon: "Journalists were very good about coming together online, even before COVID. Now with COVID, we’re all much more digitally adept. Journalists already have the skill to connect up in the digital world and to create peer group support, whether it be like-minded or gender-based groups. The social support when people are being attacked is really, really important.”
McMahon: "I’m certainly feeling more anxiety than I might have before,” she said. “It’s important to acknowledge these feelings. You’re not a weak journalist if you feel more distress. There is no negativity in feeling anxiety or depression...it’s not a moral weakness to feel emotion. It means that we are human.”
McMahon: “The research tells us that social support enhances resilience. That’s the biggest buffer against erosion of our mental health. Reach out to your colleagues. If you’re working remotely, get together in the mornings to have editorial meetings and check-ins. It’s really important to create those social spaces. Have a plan for your day. There is so little we can control at this moment, but if we plan, it gives us a sense of mastery.”
On balancing coverage of COVID-19 with other important stories
McMahon: “Life is still continuing in other ways," she said. "COVID is just taking up air space and brain space for all of us. I think it is useful for journalists and media houses to talk about how to monitor audience reaction. What is the saturation point? When is there too much information? Where does there need to be a balance? What does the community need?”
Saady: “We have to prepare now because we have to be campaigning not only against the disease, but for ourselves as journalists. This is a big opportunity for local and regional media. Start thinking over a good business model. And I am sure that will take you to the next level.”