This article is accompanied by an episode Platica con Pueblo, produced by Richie Requena
Journalists and mental health do not always go hand in hand, but as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, so did the mental health of those reporting it.
Across the country and globe, the mental health of journalists is suffering considerably and has been since the start of the pandemic, according to a study from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Toronto.
The study — led by Anthony Feinstein, a professor and neuropsychiatrist at University of Toronto, and Meera Selva, the director of the Reuters Journalist Fellowship Programme — revealed early survey results that indicate the effects COVID-19 has had on journalists. The sample survey was sent in June to 73 journalists from international news organizations, excluding freelancers, with a 63 percent response rate. At that time, the US alone had reported 2,537,636 total cases of COVID-19 with 10,185,374 globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Around 70 percent of respondents identified as having some form of psychological distress while 26 percent have been diagnosed with a form of generalized anxiety. A group of 11 percent identified as having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), “which include recurrent intrusive thoughts and memories of a traumatic COVID-19-related event, a desire to avoid recollections of the event, and feelings of guilt, fear, anger, horror and shame,” according to the study.
Philip Eil, former news editor and staff writer for the Providence Phoenix, which has since closed, and a current freelancer in Rhode Island, stressed the importance of journalists and mental health in several articles after taking his own six-week break from reporting.
“Journalists are human beings first,”
“Journalists are human beings first,”
Eil said. “There is a culture, unfortunately, that can push us away from that because of the demand for productivity, because of the deadlines, because of the way we’re supposed to be objective and ignore some of our human emotions.”
Eil fell into a depression while working as a reporter years back and decided to take on several self-care remedies before returning to the workforce, such as relaxing, leisure activities, and exploring outside of reporting, which he thinks could benefit the mental health of journalists, especially now. “I’ve found a way to work those self-care activities into my everyday routine so that I think I’m better suited to maintain my health in the future,” he said.
One way Eil thinks journalists could better navigate their mental health during a time like this is by checking in with colleagues, family and friends.
“It can be really wonderful when a colleague or friend reaches out to us and asks how we’re doing,” he said. “This is important during regular times because journalists go through a unique set of experiences that our family members and friends don’t often understand,”
“This is important during regular times because journalists go through a unique set of experiences that our family members and friends don’t often understand,”
Pew Research Center reports that since the start of the pandemic, news organizations have been forced to implement layoffs as a result of financial pressures, “adding to those that have already occurred over the last several years – though the government’s paycheck protection loans program may have provided some relief.” Despite this, pressures for COVID-19 coverage has increased while some journalists are expected to report on the virus despite a lack of knowledge in health and sciences.
Selva and Fedinstein said in the study that only 4 percent of respondents were specialized health journalists before the pandemic whereas 74 percent say they are now reporting on health-related matters linked to COVID-19.
Researchers also found that since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, 60 percent of respondents work longer hours and have an increase in demand for stories on the pandemic, which Selva and Feinstein stated “may well have contributed directly to the high levels of mental distress and anxiety.”
DePaul Senior Journalist-in-Residence, professor, and former ABC News correspondent Chris Bury recognizes that mental health was never a prevalent subject in the newsroom.
“I think [mental health] was a taboo subject. And you were just expected to do your assignment and not complain about anything,” he said.
Bury once stayed awake for 72 hours straight to cover the Clinton election in 1992, noting lack of sleep being consistent during newsworthy conflicts such as a global pandemic. “I think this one [virus] is probably far more problematic for mental health because reporters who are out constantly must worry about getting sick from a highly contagious, deadly virus.”
The study acknowledged that the organizations the respondents work for have been “moderately” supportive of the staff’s mental health needs. Respondents were asked to rank the support level of their organization out of 10, with zero being not supportive at all and 10 being very supportive. The average score was six out of 10.
“An intriguing finding is that there is a negative correlation between covering the COVID-19 pandemic and age. Thus, the older you are, the less likely you were to be given a COVID-19 story,” Selva and Feinstein wrote.
They felt this is because older people are more likely to suffer physically from the contraction of COVID-19 than younger people. “If this is indeed the case, and it is hard to interpret the data any other way, it does reflect sensitivity on the part of news organizations to the wellbeing of their staff,” they wrote.
In terms of therapeutic resources available from their respective organizations, 52 percent of respondents have been offered some form of professional help and those who utilized it find it to be really helpful, mentally.
While the study is ongoing and continues to evaluate the effects of COVID-19 on journalists and news organizations, Bury and Eil agree that news organizations should be responsible for providing mental health services for journalists.
“Journalism as a professional field is really behind other fields when it comes to recognizing mental health issues, and recognizing the connections between the work you do and anxiety, depression, burnout and PTSD,” Eil said.
Bury recognizes the strain that traumatic experiences can have on journalists and believes news organizations should provide confidential counseling.
“Other journalists are out interviewing people at hospitals. Photographers are taking very difficult photographs,” he said. “We’ve seen some incredible images of bodies lined up in hospital corridors and more at funeral homes that are just stacked with bodies. Imagine the photographer taking those images. If you’re human, those things are going to affect you emotionally.”
Bury believes journalists, during a time like this, have every right to ask for more leniency or practice self-care if a subject is too traumatic and taking a toll on their mental state. “If it means disassociating from social media or trying really hard to get a day off or telling your boss, ‘Hey, I need to change my beat. I can’t cover COVID-19, can you please have me cover sports or something?’” he said.
Nadia Hernandez, a DePaul freshman studying journalism and the assistant news editor for The Depaulia, has also struggled with the mental battles of being a journalist during COVID-19 but found new ways to practice self-care.
Some of her methods include yoga, meditating, oil diffusing, embroidery and reciting positive affirmations. “Just tell yourself you can do it. You got this. You are enough,” she said.
“Just tell yourself you can do it. You got this. You are enough,” she said.
But she also understands that [the pandemic] can make it difficult to always be on guard with our own mental health. “There was just so much external stuff happening, that it affected everyone’s internal part,” she said.
It is not clear if more news organizations around the country and across the world will offer a better understanding of mental health services to their staff during the pandemic, but journalists like Eil, Bury, and Hernandez look forward to the conversation of how journalists can better deal with mental health.
“I think it’s a really tough job to do,” said Bury. “And I hope that people who are doing it have access to some kind of mental health help.”
Header image by Yusra Shah