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May 12, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:15am

How newsrooms can deal with delayed mental health fallout from covering Covid-19 pandemic

By Charlotte Tobitt

Journalist and trained psychologist Sian Williams of 5 News has warned news organisations about the mental health fallout as the UK emerges from the coronavirus crisis.

Williams, who has spent the past year working from home as an NHS counsellor in the mornings before presenting 5 News in the afternoon, co-authored a peer-reviewed study, published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology in March.

Williams, who has delivered resilience talks to journalists at the BBC and ITN over the past year, was inspired to train as a trauma assessor about a decade ago – before studying for a Masters degree and now a doctorate in psychology – to help protect herself and her colleagues from the things they would see on a daily basis.

Her study looked at how journalists can deal with the “moral injury”, which can include the guilt, shame or distress, of covering challenging news events.

It surveyed 69 print and broadcast journalists who have covered traumatic events, and found that social support was a key element that helped them process difficult events.

Williams (pictured) told Press Gazette: “If we’re going to continue to do our job well as storytellers, we have to look after each other.”

Former Daily Beast journalist Olivia Messer wrote last week about quitting her job as the newsroom’s lead Covid reporter because of the “profound exhaustion, loss, grief, burnout, and trauma of the past year covering—and living in—a mass casualty event that has changed all of our lives”.

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She said she has spoken to a dozen other journalists in the US about their experiences and found many felt unsupported and did not “have the tools they need to handle the trauma they are absorbing”.

[Read more: How addressed newsroom mental health and brought issue to readers]

Williams told Press Gazette journalists tend to be resilient, but added: “That doesn’t mean that people won’t be experiencing post-traumatic stress type symptoms or certainly experiencing feelings of anxiety, jitteriness or hypervigilance.”

However, she warned that the effect of covering trauma can come months down the line: “The adrenaline only keeps you going for so long.”

“I think we’ve got to be really careful that we don’t think we’re out of Covid, it’s all going to be fine,” Williams said. “Because the recovery phase is going to be where we really need to pay attention. There might be a bit of back and forth.

“So you might feel ‘I’m doing all right’ and then you stumble. That’s what growth is, that’s what recovery is. It’s not linear.”

[Read more: Journalists ‘should have mental health appraisals’ to combat ‘macho culture’ of newsrooms]

Williams’ report, co-authored with Dr Tina Cartwright of the University of Westminster, noted many participants who have previously experienced post-traumatic stress from reporting on war or viewing distressing footage felt unable to seek help within their organisations.

They said this was “either because it was not provided, or that the workplace culture contained a ‘lingering macho stigma’, which did not allow for it”.

Freelance journalists excluded from support

The study also found that freelances were often left out of support schemes.

One freelance told the study that “taking care of myself psychologically means being prepared ahead of time to deal with traumatic events I might witness, and arranging to take care of myself afterwards”.

Another said: “Organisations look after their own much better than in the past but there is a whole new group of people for which they need to take responsibility,” referring in particular to local journalists in conflict zones.

A third freelance said they have no support and “the pay is too low to afford the safety precautions necessary for my work”.

Williams noted that remote workers are also at higher risk and many were not lucky enough to have as much space as she did (with separate rooms for her NHS and 5 News roles).

“If you are isolated and you have a sudden increased workload and you don’t feel that you have the resources to do the job properly, that is a perfect storm,” Williams said. “And you’re juggling responsibilities – then that is a really difficult place to be.”

‘Human beings – not machines’

She believes in the concept of “emotional flak jackets” to ensure journalists “feel as emotionally ready for stuff and prepared for stuff as they do physically” before going out on a story.

The idea was echoed on a recent panel by Hannah Storm, former chief executive of the Ethical Journalism Network, who said: “We wouldn’t send somebody to war without a physical flak jacket. We shouldn’t be sending anybody anywhere where their mental health might be compromised without an emotional flak jacket.

“That means talking to them about how their work is going to impact them and thinking about resources and risk mitigation in advance.”

Storm, a media consultant and expert in journalism safety who works with newsrooms to facilitate conversations about mental health and resilience, warned “too many” journalists are struggling in silence as their resilience wears thin.

“I recognise our industry is facing difficult times, that finances are tough,” she told Press Gazette. “But these are human beings we are talking about – not machines. We cannot be on call all the time. Sadly this year has blurred many boundaries between personal and professional lives, and many journalists simply need a break from the news before it breaks them.”

A UK study from February this year found that two-thirds of Britons temporarily stopped consuming news during the pandemic to protect their mental health and emotional wellbeing – but this is often not an option for the journalists themselves.

Journalists tend to have an “active hypervigilance”, Williams said, meaning they are constantly thinking “what’s going on, what do I need to know?”

“Normally they can turn it down but I think in this it’s just been on and none of us have been able to afford to turn it off because what if something happens?” she said.

Williams also noted that many journalists have a strong self-critical voice which can be motivating but can also be turned up too loud, making it hard to take a break.

Advice for managers: ‘Lead by example’

In the Williams and Cartwright study, suggestions for media companies to improve growth and resilience were categorised in four broad themes:

  • encouraging conversations around trauma with meetings and formal or informal debriefing sessions as well as peer support
  • greater support for freelances
  • improved access to counselling services
  • and an increased awareness of the potential for trauma and allowing time off to process and reflect.

Asked for advice on how managers can help staff move forward in a healthy way, Storm said: “Those who steer our news organisations need to understand they have a duty of care to create environments where journalists feel safe carrying out their work – not just physically, but psychologically as well.

“Too often, senior news leaders are unable to take action when they are struggling, either because they fail to recognise it or because they think they are invincible. This behaviour sets a tone which is toxic. When it comes to our mental health, we all play a role, but the leadership has to come from the top.

“Managers must lead by example and with empathy, only then will they help create a culture of trust and belonging in which their colleagues feel valued and validated for what they do, only when they are able to be well will journalism ensure it is healthy.”

‘Nobody is too senior’

Williams advocated starting informal conversations between staff – possibly via a buddy system – and said colleagues should reach out to each other if someone goes quiet or seems to be acting unusually in a video call.

“There’s nobody too senior – everybody is affected,” she said.

Williams added that managers should empower people to say no to assignments without fear of harming their careers, and rotate more and less stressful tasks.

“It’s okay to admit fragility, vulnerability, it does not mean you can’t do your job,” she said. “In fact, those who are empathic are likely to be better journalists and this is really important when it comes to stigma.

“There should absolutely be no stigma in saying ‘you know what, I’m up to here, I need some time’. It’s about checking in, opening conversations on logistics, asking ‘have you got what you need?’, but also on emotion and being really sensitive to cultural differences and beliefs and values because not everyone will be able to ask for help. This is not one size fits all.”

Journalists and mental health: further reading from Press Gazette

Picture: 5 News

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