Digital transformations in the pandemic hit journalists’ wellbeing

Journalism during the pandemic: Many suffered stress, frustration, anxiety and burnout

journalists wellbeing

New research on British journalists’ work in the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed that it was the digital transformations, such as virtual newsrooms and digital newsgathering, that had the biggest impact on journalists’ wellbeing and job satisfaction in this period, rather than trauma reporting.

In-depth interviews with more than 30 British journalists across the UK, conducted by Middlesex University London and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, suggest that journalists’ work in the pandemic was characterised primarily by negative emotions, such as anxiety and frustration. These often led to stress and burnout, as the early findings of surveys carried out in the UK and elsewhere have indicated.

Many journalists spoke of anxiety about catching the virus while working in the field and covering trauma-ridden stories. However, it was actually the remote form of work that was most frequently mentioned as evoking emotions and requiring emotional labour – effort to manage these emotions – in this period.

It perhaps isn’t surprising that remote work ranked so highly on journalists list of emotional labour triggers, as three out of four journalists in the UK worked remotely during the 2021 lockdown, which is significantly higher than what data suggests for the general workforce.

The Reuters Institute’s Changing Newsrooms report suggested that industry leaders “felt” that their employees’ wellbeing improved in this form of work. The majority of interviewed British journalists seems to disagree. Several reported that the lack of long commutes and chaotic newsrooms worked for them, but most spoke of a range of things they missed by not being in their newsrooms and on location.

For example, journalists reported missing brainstorming with colleagues in the newsroom, which they say increases the quality of journalism. This caused frustration and nervousness about the quality of work. A mid-career broadcast editor described it like this:

“I think the best ideas often come from interacting with other people… When you’re sitting in a newsroom and a story breaks and you have five people around you that you can shout across to like, ‘Oh, who could we interview?’ or, ‘Where can we go?’ and you get four ideas back… That really sparks creativity. Whereas if you’re working from home and a story breaks, often… You know, you can only have one phone call at a time, and I mean you can do multiple Zoom meetings, but you just don’t get the same dynamic in terms of creating ideas.”

[Read more: ‘The more conversations we have, the more openly we talk’]

Spontaneous emotional support is missing

Journalists also said they miss having their colleagues around to talk about issues related to a story, source, or editor, as they used to manage their work-related emotions – often frustration or anger, but also happiness and excitement – in this way. What is missed too is the informal and spontaneous emotional support from fellow journalists that is common in the newsroom. An early-career print correspondent said:

“You know, it’s easier to, say, take a phone call with somebody shouting at you in an office with colleagues, where you’ve kind of got that immediate emotional support, compared to at home, where it’s kind of like the professional life intruding on personal life.”

Given this, the study echoes the caution expressed by others that the current developments, which are seeing the closure of physical newsrooms and a move towards hybrid, if not fully remote working, should be done carefully and with consideration of the importance of physical newsroom for both journalists’ wellbeing and the quality of journalism.

[Comment: The death of the newsroom means the end of journalism as we know it]

Another working practice that triggered journalists’ emotional labour was digital newsgathering in which data and quotes from sources were gathered via digital tools, rather than in person.

‘That has made the job more lonely’

Journalists said that the inability to report on location and speak to sources face-to-face made them feel frustrated in their attempts to get information and removed the rewarding, fun element from work. This impacted their job satisfaction, and in some cases also wellbeing.

A senior broadcast editor said:

“You know, body language, physical cues, the serendipity of bumping into someone, reading people, watching, using your eyes journalistically as well as your ears and your brain is, or has been, a huge part of my career. And that has all been on hold in the last year or much of it has been on hold. That has made the job more lonely. Less fun.”

And while it appears that there is more focus on journalists’ mental health and wellbeing since the pandemic has started, interviewed journalists were fairly critical towards organisational support during the pandemic. From their comments, it seems that managing their emotional labour, and supporting others, has often been an improvised action with limited organisational support beyond access to digital communication channels, helplines, and apps.

Digital tools insufficient to support journalists’ wellbeing

The digital systems put in place to facilitate and support work, such as Zoom rooms, Slack channels, and WhatsApp groups, have largely been described as inadequate and ineffective in substituting “traditional” practices that journalists see as contributing to quality journalism and helping them gain emotional release and support in their line of work.

Research from the US has already found that lower organisational support is related to higher levels of stress and decreased work commitment. This means that media organisations might consider paying more attention, and invest more in support systems for journalists. Not only to benefit journalists’ wellbeing, although that should be as good a reason as any, but also to keep and attract quality staff.

These support systems for journalists’ wellbeing will be discussed at a symposium entitled “Emotional labour in media work”, which will take place at Middlesex University London on 28-29 April. Alongside academics discussing new research on the issue, the event will also gather a range of stakeholders who will discuss how journalists’ emotional labour, and consequently their mental and physical health, work commitment, and quality of journalism itself, can be best supported.

The public-facing part of the event, a roundtable on the topic of online abuse journalists face in everyday work, will see the issue of support for journalists’ wellbeing discussed by the General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, Ricardo Gutiérrez, and the first British online safety editor, Reach’s Rebecca Whittington, alongside others. The event is free and can be attended in person or viewed online.

Picture: Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images

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