COVID-19: How do journalists stay sane in maddening times?

Joan Van Dyk

By Rakiya A. Muhammad

For many journalists, it has been a silent struggle to stay sane as the psychological effect of coronavirus pandemic takes a toll on them.

‘Since March, life hasn’t been the same with regards to reporting and covering news for me, ‘states Elizabeth Merab, who endured the torment of loneliness occasioned by the pandemic.

She shares her experience on the impacts of the lockdown at the African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC): The virtual edition where “Journalists and Mental Health”, comes to the fore.

The Kenyan broadcast journalist was confined to remote reporting because of an underlining condition that makes her vulnerable to contracting the virus.

‘I had to pull away from active field coverage. There’s that loneliness of not covering a story live,’ she reveals.


‘Being detached from my colleagues and the other people in the office; that seamless teamwork that comes into play when you are there in person compared to when you are working with someone on the phone or virtually.’

Likewise, Joan Van Dyk, a Senior Health Journalist in South Africa, points to a difference between working in isolation and ‘real-life’.

The long-form narrative feature writer says with the lockdown she had to conduct traumatic interviews over the phone and WhatsApp.

The distressing effects resulted in sleeping anxiety, which she traces to the trauma of a two- hour interview.

Some journalists experienced recurrent intrusive thoughts and memories of a traumatic COVID-19 related event, a desire to avoid recollections of the event, and feeling of guilt, fear, anger, horror and shame which are symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD, a survey of 73 journalists from Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya,  and Botswana shows.

Meera Selva

Shedding light on the survey at the conference, Meera Selva, Director, Journalist fellowship Programme Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, notes that 70 per cent of the respondents suffered some level of psychological distress.

’26 per cent have clinically significant anxiety (worry, insomnia, poor concentration, feeling on edge),’ she states.

‘What was most striking was that it shows the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder in war correspondents and journalists covering natural disasters and terror attack.’

She adds that 60% of journalists reported on working longer hours since the pandemic and 60% noted more demand for stories because of the pandemic, along with the demands of childcare and domestic duties.

But how mental health- sensitive are media houses? The Director thinks some media houses are mental health sensitive, while others do not feel that a journalist’s mental health is their responsibility.


What Helps?

Counselling does help,’ asserts Meera. ’52 % of the people we surveyed have been offered some sort of access to counselling, and those that have receiveld it are less likely to have anxiety or PTSD.’
Joan corroborates:’ I was lucky I had access to zoom counselling, psychologists.’

However, she points out: ‘I did not have meaningful social outings, friends and families that can help.’

She adds: ‘Dealing with trauma yourself, I think you need to build relationships-Find a person who you can confide in.’

She also suggests the use of relaxation apps to take time away from the story. ‘Something I have learnt- if you can tell it is going to be traumatising- it’s important to go into the interviews knowing how you are going to deal with it afterwards,’ she encourages.

For Elizabeth Merab: ‘You need to have some time to unwind. You need to be off on all of your screens, your phone, laptop.’

What helps?

Financial Impact/Reprieve

AIJC raises another concern that COVID-19 stirs -how the threat of job insecurity impact on the ability of journalists to do their work.

‘We saw that the media industry was having a tough time,’ declares Kate Skinner, Executive Director of the South African National Editor’s Forum.

Her organisation examined the financial impact of the pandemic on the news media and offered support.

“The first thing we did was research-what are the particular areas in the South African media that have been worst hit? We discovered that it was the print media sector that was particularly affected,” she discloses.

Kate Skinner

“We also discovered that freelancers had been particularly badly affected. We got information from the Southern Africa Freelancers Association that 60 per cent of their members lost up to 70 per cent
of their income, some had lost up to almost 100 per cent.”

Once they gathered the research, the team set up a fund and raised 5million Rand. ‘We gave some amount to journalists who lost their job, just to keep
them in the profession, keep them going,’ she reveals.

“We have done the first round. We are going to have a second, third and fourth phase.”

The Executive Director does not think journalism is ever going to be the same again. ’It’s probably going to be more online,’ she postulates. ‘Journalists are going to need to be more creative with their work.’



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