Reporting and Covid-19: Tips for Journalists

Self-Care and Peer Support for Journalists During a Global Pandemic

Thursday April 16, 2020

Guest: Cait McMahon, Managing Director, Dart Centre Asia Pacific. 

Cait McMahon is a registered psychologist with a PhD who has received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM), one of Australia’s highest civil accolades, for her work with journalists and trauma. 

For many journalists, Covid-19 may be the biggest and perhaps most challenging news story they’ll ever cover. And reporting on the pandemic is risky and personal. How can reporters meet demanding and continuous deadlines while being vigilant about taking care of themselves? 

Distinct challenges of Covid-19 coverage

The extreme stress felt by many journalists during this unprecedented public health crisis is unique. As McMahon says, we are all experiencing it, globally, together. And this raises different issues because the coverage is on-going, and the circumstances in constant limbo. Stress from lack of sleep, or from producing multiple stories about traumatized people can lead to burnout. McMahon says reporters need to be watchful not to project their own stress into the story.

Covid-19 is an existential dilemma

Governments operating with vastly different strategies about how to buy time for medical communities or create policies for the well-being of citizens can cause endless amounts of rage, anger, fear and anxiety. Covering this can lead to the same feelings for reporters. 

Maintaining disciplined self-care regimes, with support from news managers, gives reporters a better chance of staying mentally and physically healthy. But the reality is that in many newsrooms facing budget cuts and staffing reductions, this kind of support can be inconsistent. 

Reporters who have experience covering trauma do have an advantage: Many have built up resiliency. But this in no way negates the urgency and importance of daily self-care to maintain that resiliency.

Strong sense of purpose and mission

Those who believe and understand the vital role journalists play in the unfolding crisis will likely handle the stress better. McMahon says writing a personal mission statement can be grounding and a reminder for journalists that they operate with the intent to provide clear, accurate and ethical stories.

Review, Reflect, Distance

Journalists are trained observers with fine tuned ability to look at a situation from a distance. While crafting stories reporters, should constantly lean into those assets. Take breaks during the story, even short breaks, and come back with fresh eyes.

Set boundaries and disconnect from your devices

This guidance is no longer only the stuff of self-help blogs. This is survival. McMahon suggests setting a plan and sticking to it. Get exercise, even briefly. Do yoga for ten minutes during the day. 

Step back and really look at your daily routines. Is there a place you can go, even another room in your house, for physical and psychological space from the story? If so, find the time and go to that place.

Self-Care check list

  • How am I feeling today? Am I physically sick or under the weather?

  • Am I having more emotional moments? Trouble with my family or my friends?

  • If the answer to these basic questions is yes, then it’s time to increase your self-care.

Thought experiment for dealing with the unknown. 

Create, in your own mind’s eye, a safe place. Include auditory and physical sensations. Keep the image of the safe place in your mind.

Go there for five or 10 minutes each day. Imagine fragrances and sounds – use as many senses as you can. Your brain won’t know if you’re really there or not. Practice this on a daily basis.

The brain needs time to recover

An overloaded brain is unlikely to handle stress and anxiety well over time. Even "nano breaks”, anything from a minute to an hour, can help restore and relieve some of the pressure. Think about your work as a marathon. Even the best athletes need hydration and rest. The brain needs this psychological distance from the trauma to perform.

Be a good colleague, even when socially distanced.

Social support enhances resilience. McMahon says this is true whether giving or receiving support. Use Zoom or social media to check-in on each other, everything from daily check-in calls at the start of each work day, to social gatherings on Friday nights. And always try to find ways to keep humor firmly rooted in your encounters where appropriate. Be generous and mindful, and remember it’s often hard for people to ask for help.

So keep on the look-out for signs from colleagues who might be struggling. Signs include an increase in negative self-talk. Check-in with reporters who can be prone to anxiety. Identify a colleague’s friends in the newsroom, and if you see behavior that is worrisome, approach them to help.

And don’t hesitate to ask others to help you check-in. A sort of battle buddy system can be a good idea. 

Learn what is normal about trauma and our reactions to it. This helps you understand the kind of stress that can emerge from covering events like Covid-19, including a complicated sense of guilt and worry about whether stories are making a difference. 

How can mentors be comforting to young journalists?

Remind students and new reporters that we are in this together. Journalism is often at its best when the effort is collaborative.

Be honest. Talk about things you’ve learned in the past and tell reporters that their work today is helping to write journalism guidebooks for the future. And that you are writing that guidebook with them.

Create a space for talking about fear: Fears about getting sick, about spreading the virus and the protocol for avoiding these issues. Be specific and repetitive, if necessary. Information and education can reduce fear and anxiety.

Be realistic. Self-care and safety guidelines can’t eliminate risk, but they can greatly reduce them.