The pandemic has dominated headlines since it began, but less attention has been paid to how it has impacted the journalists reporting on it. In a recent report titled ‘Journalism in the Time of Covid’, John Crowley, an editor, trainer and consultant with 20 years of journalistic experience managing newsrooms including as editorial director of First Draft, investigates how new lockdown norms have impacted the industry, journalists’ mental health and what the future of journalism looks like in a post-Covid world. MSc Politics and Communication student Rosie Trainor spoke to him.
Journalists are reporting on an unprecedented, distressing disease that has taken the lives of many people all over the world. How is reporting on Covid affecting their mental health? Is enough being done by news organisations to support them?
It’s having a huge, detrimental effect on their mental health. Many journalists are steadfastly carrying on with their roles of listening and speaking to people about their problems during the pandemic – that’s in addition to the ’normal’ ebb and flow of day-to-day news. However, journalists I have spoken to feel no-one is checking in on how they are doing. The news industry is facing a perfect storm in which a struggling business model, redundancies and furloughs, falling trust in the industry and multiple strategic pivots fill up in the in-trays of newsroom leaders. That means the wellbeing of journalists is pushed down the priority list. But when journalism is so ready to preach to society about wellbeing, shouldn’t we hold ourselves to a higher standard? As part of my work, I am talking to newsrooms to help them about how they can help their journalists’ mental health. Having healthy, happy journalists means they are more productive, are less likely to take time off and are more inclined to stay on with open-minded news organisations.
With a growing demand for information, what are the challenges of the need to provide accurate and critical reporting, combat misinformation and keep the population up to date in a rapidly changing situation?
With so much disinformation flowing along the Internet’s ether, skipping over borders and toothless regulation, the need for accurate and critical reporting is needed more than ever. The disinformation battle of 2021 is being waged around Covid vaccines. The anti-vax movement is threatening to undermine the roll-out of vaccines, particularly over how governments are administering and sharing them. The problem is being exacerbated in Europe by governments and leaders of countries which are calling into question the efficacy of certain vaccines.
Journalism showed during the first lockdown what a crucial role the industry can play to provide the general public with clear and concise medical information. Both newsroom leaders and ‘rank-and-file’ journalists would do well to acquaint themselves with the online methods and techniques anti-vaccine advocates employ. They should also think hard about how to report this issue – by actually covering some of the false claims, they could also be giving publicity to conspiracy theories and misleading claims.
Another massive issue is that the row over vaccines is being conducted by rich countries when many developing nations around the world, such as in the Global South, are yet to receive a single dose. This self-obsession shouldn’t come at the expense of covering other stories such as the global rollout of vaccines.
Many people have talked of needing to ‘step away from the news’ to protect their mental health. What are your thoughts on the heavy coverage of the pandemic more generally? How can journalists and new organisations balance reporting on the pandemic with other news?
Newsrooms are breaking coverage down into Covid and non-Covid stories. It’s a simplistic distinction to make when it has such an impact in our lives. I spoke to journalists for a survey and report I conducted last year called ‘Journalism in the Time of Covid’. The journalists themselves said they felt stuck in a ‘pandemic bubble’ as the public at least can make that decision not to read the news. Going forward, journalism needs to think how breaking news is delivered in depressing waves – through push notifications, email alerts and shouty headlines. You feel like you’re in a slow-motion crash and while it can deliver initial good numbers and readers, is this the way we want to be delivering news? It’s just exhausting for everyone.
What do you think the long-term impact of the pandemic will be on journalistic practices?
I think they will be utterly transformed. Who would have said we would have been publishing newspapers and conceiving new digital products from our sofas, beds and kitchen tables? Many news orgs will permanently move to a distributed/wfh model – just to save money as much as anything else. Journalists have been used to working remotely with laptops so I think they can adjust, though of course it won’t be a painless transition and it will come at a cost of having the ‘serendipity bonus’ of getting ideas from colleagues in person. The problem is that flexible working can just as much be an albatross around your neck. If you’re constantly ‘on’, that isn’t good for your mental wellbeing.
I feel journalism had, before the pandemic, lacked ambition and innovative ideas. The jolt provided by lockdown and working from home is something journalism could use to reinvent itself anew.