Journalists, editors and students: How to take care of yourself during COVID-19

By: Charlotte Norsworthy, SPJ Georgia President

SPJ Georgia recognizes the unique challenges the journalism industry faces in covering the COVID-19 crisis. Journalists are answering the call of duty by equipping the public with crucial updates on the spread of the virus. However, in doing so, journalists are also experiencing various levels of stress, trauma and other personal hardships.

So, we have produced a resource list for journalists, editors and journalism students on ways they can take care of themselves and those around them during this outbreak. 

For Journalists 

Covering long-term traumatic situations like COVID-19 has been described as a marathon. Tracy Grant, editor at the Washington Post, described it as a relay race, “passing the virtual baton,” as newsrooms have gone remote. 

Journalists are experiencing an unprecedented situation that severely impacts their ability to deliver crucial information to their readers. As such, new reporting methods must be adopted and extra measures of care must be taken to support journalists’ physical and mental well-being.  

To those journalists, here are some tips. 

Create a new routine that incorporates practices of self-care in order to make reporting on this pseudo-marathon-relay more sustainable. The Global Investigative Journalism Network offers suggestions for habits to incorporate into your day-to-day before, during and after reporting on a difficult or traumatic story. 

With an endless news cycle of primarily negative impacts of this global pandemic, Dr. Glen Nowak, Director of Center for Health & Risk Communication at the University of Georgia offers up the suggestion of looking for silver linings. 

“I think at some point it will be useful to turn to stories that highlight what good things are happening,” Nowak said. “What is the incremental progress, and how can we make that more visible?”

Nowak highlighted an example of a recent CNN story that connected crafty people equipped with fabric and sewing machines with local hospitals in need of face masks. 

“Find those stories and look for opportunities to make the connection to help out your community,” Nowak said. “How could people who are at home who are interested in volunteering help the community in getting to the other side of this curve?”

Other tips for journalists: 

  • Connect with other journalists covering COVID-19. The National Association for Science Writers put together a Twitter list of member journalists covering the outbreak. Connecting with a community may help you lean on your peers for support. 
  • Maintain your hygiene while on assignment. This may seem like a given, but the Committee to Protect Journalists has a detailed list for how you can continue to report in the field while maintaining safety habits. Other useful tips from this list include ways to adjust your gear to keep a safe distance from your sources, such as directional microphones instead of lapel microphones. 
  • Don’t get hung up on numbers. Dr. Nowak said context is incredibly important when reporting on numbers of coronavirus-related deaths and positive diagnoses. While the number of tests, cases and deaths is crucial information, it is important to pair that information with context in order to provide accurate balance to the story. 

For Editors

Editors have the unique task of needing to care for themselves as well as the teams they lead. Editors are the first line of defense for recognizing the trauma that these journalists are experiencing at this time. 

To those editors, here are some tips. 

In a webinar presented by Freedom Forum on March 23, Washington Post editor Tracy Grant offered useful suggestions for checking in with your remote team. 

Grant said to keep communication lines open with your staff, and that means more than just email and Slack. Grant said to give each reporter a call or better yet: face-to-face via Zoom or Skype. 

“We have to be thinking about the long term, in the reporting of this and the relationships that the editors and reporters are going to have,” Grant said in the webinar. “There is no story that is worth the long term relationship that you are going to have with your staff.” 

Another tip Grant offered for communicating with your reporters is to give reporters permission to accomplish a story remotely whenever possible. 

“Make sure you are asking your staff if they are comfortable going out on assignment,” she said. “Make sure you are waiting to hear their answer, process the answer and listen for hesitancy.”

Don’t forget about your interns, Dan Shelley at RTDNA said in the Freedom Forum webinar. While it may be challenging to offer thoughtful and useful assignments to interns while working remotely, Shelley said to think about other ways to support interns during this time. 

“Check on them, make sure they’re ok. Listen,” Shelley said. “Do your best to help them meet their needs.”

Other tips for editors: 

  • Educate your staff about new protocols for interacting with sources and high-risk environments. The Committee to Protect Journalists offers a detailed list of ways journalists can adjust their methods to be as safe as possible. For example, if you want your staffers to wear a face mask in certain reporting environments, these are the recommended masks
  • Find opportunities for days off. RTDNA offers suggestions for ways you can accommodate your teams while still delivering crucial information to your readers. One of those suggestions is to rotate duties and give team members the opportunity to tend to family obligations or mental health practices. 
  • Diversify your coverage. Check out this site on covering under-served communities during COVID-19. Here is another article by the National Association for Science Writers on finding diverse sources on a deadline. 

For Students

Student journalists are experiencing several impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak. For those students interning, their internship may have been moved to remote work or cancelled altogether. Their college semesters were cut short and many graduating seniors will not have a commencement ceremony. Finally, many students are still out covering the impacts of the virus on their communities for their student publications. 

To those students, here are some tips. 

If you are a member of your student publication and are still out reporting on the impacts of COVID-19 in your community, you may have unique challenges in covering school closures. The Student Press Law Center offers a COVID-19 coverage resource list specifically catered to you. 

“There were quite a few ways I envisioned finishing my final semester of college — getting placed on house arrest because of a global pandemic wasn’t exactly one of them. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or next week or even next month, and it’s easy to feel fear in the face of that,” Megan Wahn, a senior University of Georgia journalism student said. “Yet, as I watch journalists around the world rally together and get innovative in how we tell the news, I can’t help but feel like it’s a great time to be a storyteller.”

If her feelings sound relatable, read her open letter to students like you. 

Wahn and many other student journalists are still reporting on COVID-19 and feel empowered to deliver crucial news to their communities. Give this story from the Washington Post a read. 

For a source of inspiration and remote reading for students in the state of Georgia, we invite you to apply for our Student Book Award. We will ship you a bestselling book written by an investigative journalist to help you maintain your passion for this field. 

Other tips for students: 

  • Work through your stressors. Check out this video by Poynter on dealing with the diversity of stress on your plate due to COVID-19. 
  • Do what feels right for your situation. Many college students were ordered off campus for the rest of the semester. Many students who lived off-campus simply opted to move back home. Many students are waiting it out to see what develops. Whatever you decide to do, make the decision that ensures your safety and well-being. 
  • Stay in contact with your friends and mentors. Schedule regular Zoom or Facetime hangouts with your fellow classmates. Lean on your peers that are going through the same experiences as you. Make plans to celebrate your accomplishments, graduation and other postponed collegiate moments for when the outbreak is contained. 

Here are some final guides for journalists covering COVID-19: 

If SPJ Georgia can support you in any way during this time, shoot us an email: spjgeorgia@gmail.com

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