Guidance: Self-care for journalists during COVID-19

Journalists are just one of the many essential service providers crucial to the fight against COVID-19. And being at the frontline means that they need to ensure their own well-being first in order to be effective in their job to inform the public during these uncertain times.

Journalists are exposed to several levels of stress in this pandemic. They are at the centre of the story, not just witnessing and reporting on events, but also having their lives impacted by the pandemic. They may have lost friends and family members to the disease but need to continue a professional approach to their reporting. They may fear for their own safety when they report from hospitals or testing clinics. And, especially for journalists regularly assigned to report on COVID-19 deaths, coming face to face with the devastating consequences of this pandemic could expose them to vicarious trauma.

This is the first-time journalists worldwide are sharing a single set of challenges ranging from how to report on the escalating deaths and humanize the suffering of the survivors, to addressing misinformation and rumours, and getting the science right on the disease – at the same time pointing out the poor science. Journalists are expanding their scientific knowledge at an exponential rate, all with the knowledge that if their reporting is unclear or misleading it could contribute to rumours or risky behaviour that might cause further deaths.

Where then does the boundary begin and end for journalists in this crisis? Though some might argue that journalists are trained observers who have that ability to step back when they’re crafting the story and reflect afterwards, they, too, can be susceptible to trauma.

We take a look at some common emotional reactions to the crisis and what resources are available to help journalists in this difficult time.

Feelings of guilt – Guilt is a common emotional reaction to a crisis. As a journalist, you might be asking yourself “I’m healthy and working at home but I’m calling health workers outside my house, on my mobile, who are risking their lives in the frontlines to save COVID-19 patients. Is that fair?” “Am I doing enough as a reporter to stop the pandemic and are my reports making a difference and taken seriously?”

Feeling emotionally drained – Being able to empathise with those affected by a crisis allows a journalist to tell an authentic story and treat their subjects with respect. But this connection to crisis and suffering can also be emotionally exhausting.

Feelings of anger or helplessness – This is a truly global crisis, and it’s impact and your ability to contribute towards it can feel bigger than you can handle. There are things in your control, like the quality of your reporting and making sure your information is trustworthy and accurate. But there are also things outside of your control. For example,  we have governments operating at different levels. Some of their decisions are not based on good scientific evidence and are more politically motivated, like decisions to open up the economy despite continuous community transmission of the virus. These decisions, we feel, could threaten our lives and the lives of our loved ones. As of such, it gives rise to anger, fear and anxiety.

All’s not lost. There’re strategies and there is help.

These strategies may help you to analyse what you are feeling so that you can continue looking after your community.

Check-in with your mental health daily

Journalists can sometimes feel that they are expected to be strong, and not feel emotions in times of crisis. But it’s important to remember that constantly running towards, rather than away from, a crisis can have it’s toll.

Do a self-psychological safety check daily to understand your own well-being and how you can try to cope in the days you are feeling down.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How do I feel today?
  • Am I feeling more vulnerable than usual?
  • How are my energy levels today?
  • Is anything worrying me more than usual?
  • Am I feeling physically sick today?
  • Am I having problems with my family?
  • Are any of my loved ones not well today?

You might not tick all the boxes, but it could give you an indicator of when you may need  to pay more attention to yourself.

If you are living alone in isolation during the COVID-19 lockdown, you need to check in with your peers. Bounce it off your colleagues: “I’m feeling really guilty. I think I might have spread the disease by not wearing a face mask. Can you help me think around this?” Using colleagues to get a reality check is really important.

Write a personal mission statement

A crisis can be positive; it can force you to question your purpose in life and help provide direction. What can this anxiety teach you about your relationship to the world in your coverage of COVID-19? Pull out a notebook, find a quiet spot, and write your personal mission statement. Ask yourself why your reporting on COVID-19 is important? Are you helping to save lives by giving the public good, accurate, and ethical information? The sense of purpose and mission will be your main goal.

Share this personal mission with your peers and you will be surprised how their life perspectives could be similar to yours. This will be a good reinforcement for your life’s mission as a journalist during COVID-19, when you realise your positive and admirable qualities and how it touches the lives of others – especially your media audience.

Negotiate personal boundaries in COVID-19 coverage

All journalists, even senior ones, are dealing with a confusing work environment at the moment. We’re living and reporting on a crisis and that can make it difficult to draw the line between our professional and personal lives.

Remote working is one of the biggest shifts for many people right now and this may create additional stressors. For some, it means isolation, for others it means juggling the demands of homelife in addition to work.

Without the physical separation of an office from your home, the lines between work and personal life can quickly blur. Many of you may now be working longer hours than usual, answering late night emails and finding it hard to switch off .

The Global Investigative Journalism Network spoke to the Dart Center’s Dr Cait McMohan and Bruce Shapiro to create these guidelines on how to negotiate personal boundaries when covering COVID-19. Poynter, also offers sound advice.

Make a work plan of what you’re doing throughout the day to have boundaries of what your work time and your home time are.

The Dart Centre offers these tips:

  • Plan your reporting schedule. Decide when you will do your toughest work, for example in the morning when you may have more energy.
  • Take breaks.
  • Map out the times that will require deep immersion in the situation or during in-depth interviews.
  • If possible, do as much of this emotionally intense work as early in the story as you can, when you are less tired.
  • Don’t consume traumatic content before you go to bed.
  • Make sure to plan for regular sleep and rest.
  • Know your limits, triggers, and weak points.
  • Update your schedule if circumstances require so that you don’t miss a deadline, causing additional stress.

Try to turn off

There’s more to life than just news. So what can you do beyond work? What can help you relax and be calm?

Physical activity is one of the most effective and valuable tools to help you stay calm and put your health first, along with relaxation techniques such as meditation and deep breathing. The internet is full of online workouts, fitness advice, exercise courses, and more, and now is the ideal time to take advantage of them. You can find many classes for free on YouTube, along with dedicated fitness sites.

Don’t forget your peers

Giving and receiving peer support also enhances our resilience. We might be physically apart from our peers but we can still be socially connected and provide support.

One fun activity can be a Zoom Friday Night After Work, where you and colleagues can hangout in a virtual space and relax and have fun – as you would do under normal circumstances on Friday evenings after a hectic work week.

Speaking to each other, even in a virtual space, and sharing experience helps break the cycle of feeling isolated.

Be kind to yourself

Living and working in a crisis can contribute to negative feelings about yourself or the quality of your work. You may be missing the praise or support from your office colleagues, or you may be feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the crisis. Lots of people may not feel they are living up to their own standards at the moment. Our routines have been turned on their head and this can contribute to issues with productivity, focus or creativity.

Let’s be honest, it’s not always easy to be 100 percent kind to ourselves all of the time. But did you know that just thinking kind thoughts about yourself and others has been shown to have psychological benefits?

You can practice self-compassion and self-acceptance by simply noticing the next time you catch yourself thinking or speaking negatively about yourself and reframing it into a more positive light. For example, the thought “I made a mistake at work the other day, I always make mistakes, I am so stupid”, could be reframed into “It’s okay to make mistakes, I am learning from each mistake that I make, and everybody makes mistakes”. The more that you practice being self-compassionate, the more naturally it will come to you.

More resources:

  • The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has a number of self-care resources for journalists covering COVID-19, both at the frontlines and remotely.
  • Poynter has come up with the following advice on how journalists can fight stress from covering the coronavirus

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