Journalists have immersed themselves in the COVID-19 story for months. But at what cost to their mental health? A recent study found that three quarters of reporters surveyed felt significant emotional distress.


Resource details:

Publication title: Staying Sane: Journalists and Mental Health
Author(s): The 16th African Investigative Journalism Conference at Wits University
Publication date: 26 October 2020

What the panel is about:

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way journalists work. It has threatened their livelihoods and their health. This panel discussion, moderated by Bhekisisa editor Mia Malan, takes a closer look at how covering and living the story of the new coronavirus affected the mental health of journalists. Health reporters Joan van Dyk from Bhekisisa and Elizabeth Merab of the Nation Media Group in Kenya shared their experiences of reporting on the pandemic, with input from Kate Skinner, the executive director of the South African National Editors Forum, Sanef. Meera Selva, the director of the journalist fellowship programme at the Reuters Institute of Journalism at Oxford shared the findings of a study called “Staying Sane in Maddening Times: Journalism, mental health and the pandemic”. 

View Meera Selva’s powerpoint presentation.

Watch the full panel discussion

African Investigative Journalism Conference Staying Sane: Journalists and Mental Health

The Reuters study:

How COVID-19 has affected journalists’ mental health 

  • In June 2020, researchers at the Reuters Institute of Journalism at Oxford University surveyed a small sample of 73 journalists from international media organisations in countries such as the United Kingdom, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, amongst others, to find out how reporting on the coronavirus pandemic affected their mental health.
  • Among those surveyed, only 63 responded and 4% were health journalists. 
  • What did they find? 70% of respondents said they suffered some form of psychological distress. 
  • About a quarter of respondents said they experienced clinically significant symptoms of anxiety including worry, insomnia, poor concentration and feeling on edge during the pandemic. 
  • 11% of journalists covering COVID-19 who participated in the survey reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms can include intrusive and recurring 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, the study’s co-author from the Reuters Institute, Meera Selva, says.
  • 60% of respondents reported working longer hours since the pandemic started. This burden fell disproportionately on women who felt “incredible pressure to do more at home and at work with far fewer resources”. 
Meera Selva from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University
  • 60% percent of the reporters surveyed noted an increased demand for stories. 
  • Just under half of the reporters surveyed knew a journalist who got infected with the coronavirus. 
  • Two journalists surveyed knew a colleague who had succumbed to COVID-19. 
  • Some reporters who participated in the survey said they experienced moral injury, which occurs when people are forced to make decisions that go against their personal principles. Selva explains: “This could be knocking on the door of a grieving family when you know they want to be left alone, but your editors say you need to get their story.” Did you miss our webinar about the moral injury health workers experienced during COVID-19? Watch it here.
  • It’s not just the demands of working as a journalist that made reporting on COVID-19 difficult, Selva says. “There’s also the trauma of COVID-19, a story that’s happening around you. You are also part of it, you are also susceptible to catching it and spreading it. You also need the equipment that there’s a shortage of and your family is at risk as well. So it’s a story that lives within us as well as outside us.”
Joan van Dyk, Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism

Solutions from the study: How can newsrooms support their staff? 

  • Counselling helps. So does support from managers and staff. 52% of respondents had been offered counselling. Those who had received it reported fewer symptoms of  anxiety or PTSD.
  • Solidarity with other journalists is crucial – understanding that you are not alone and recognition that others are also struggling. 
  • Work, home and travel have changed, and it’s important that managers and reporters take that into account Selva says. “This is especially true for women who are trying to work with young children or people working with poor internet facilities are in very, very hot rooms without air conditioning. You can’t be expected to produce the same kind of work with the same deadlines.”

COVID reporting lessons:

  • When the COVID-19 pandemic first took hold, journalists were not seen as a priority to receive personal protective equipment (PPE) to shield them from infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on the job, says Selva. Respondents said their managers were slow to recognise the need for social distancing in newsrooms, or why it was important that reporters can work from home to avoid public transport. 
  • Elizabeth Merab from Nation Media in Kenya lives with a comorbidity that makes her more likely to experience severe symptoms of COVID-19. Her way of working changed drastically. Not only did she have to work from home, she also had to rely on colleagues to conduct on camera interviews on her behalf.
Elizabeth Merab from the Nation Media Group in Kenya
  • Don’t underestimate the stress of reporting while in isolation, says Bhekisisa reporter Joan van Dyk. While the mental health impact of an emotionally draining interview conducted telephonically was not immediately apparent, that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. She shared that at her most stressed she chose to push through as she didn’t have time to process what was going on. That was until she began to notice that her ability to deal with daily tasks ground to a halt.
  • The South African media industry was badly affected by COVID-19, particularly smaller organisations, says Sanef’s executive director, Kate Skinner. The professional body set up a relief fund and raised R5-million to give support to journalists who lost their livelihoods because of the pandemic.

Solutions from the field:

  • Journalists can’t be expected to produce the same kind of work, on the same kind of deadlines. Managers need to recognise the support they can offer. A simple, immediate solution could be to offer some time off or access to mental health support resources. 
  • Merab agreed saying there were days she missed her deadlines because keeping up with a schedule is more challenging working from home. She said it’s important to take time out and decompress. “You have to take care of your mental well-being first before anyone else intervenes.”
  • Van Dyk says planning how you’re going to debrief after a stressful interview is one way to avoid burnout. She says there is a gap in South African journalists’ training when it comes to handling trauma. 
  • A daily tech blackout helps, Van Dyk says. “Just take a break and do something else other than being online. It is important to block off time when working from home to retain your sanity in some way. Whether that’s like a ten-minute stretch or making sure you eat healthily.”

Missed the AICJ panel discussion on journalism in the time of COVID? Watch it here.