Confronting the emotional toll of covering COVID-19

This column originally appeared in Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists.

Being a witness to history can be both a privilege and a burden. In their pursuit of a story, journalists often find themselves in stressful situations that take an emotional or mental toll.  Typically, those who cover conflict and crime are the most affected, but with a story as universal as the COVID-19 outbreak, which carries tangible risks for reporters and sources alike, many in the industry are feeling anxious or worried, affecting their mental health and their ability to do their work safely. 

The good news is that even in an environment as unpredictable and stressful as the one created by the pandemic, there are things that you can do to ground yourself and manage the anxiety. For this edition of Navigator, we spoke with Mike Niconchuk, Director of Research and Development at Beyond Conflict, an organization that examines the intersections of neuroscience, behavioral science and real-world experience to approach conflict resolution and social change. Our interview with Niconchuk explores the effects of covering COVID-19 on journalists’ mental health and what newsrooms can do to support their reporters and editors. His responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

The effects of reporting on crises 

(Illustration courtesy of Haya Halawah/Beyond Conflict)

The coronavirus pandemic is a story that leads to uncertainty when reported from almost any angle, an uncertainty that journalists become engrossed in. 

“[Journalists are] uncovering the traumas that then get trickled down into the general population. You’re immersed in them every single day, and you’re writing about them and editing them and going back to it. It’s [an] incentive structure that sort of incentivizes traumatizing yourself,” said Niconchuk.

Niconchuk explains that while every person experiences trauma in their lifetime, not everyone is traumatized. “Being traumatized implies that there have been certain changes that your brain and body have undergone that are sort of misadaptations or maladaptations that are no longer healthy for you in the current environment. Just because you’ve experienced a traumatic incident doesn’t mean you’re going to develop any of those maladaptations,” said Niconchuk. 

Misusing the words “trauma” and “traumatized” when discussing a form of distress can minimize the pain of those who do experience permanent physical, psychological or emotional challenges after exposure to a traumatic event. It’s important that journalists keep this mind while covering communities impacted by coronavirus while also coping with their own distress, potentially induced by constant immersion in the COVID-19 story or personal experience. 

Related: Check out IRE and SPJ’s tipsheet for fact-checking your COVID-19 stories. 

Our brains cope with uncertainty in different ways 

Every person has a different reaction to traumatic incidents. Niconchuk offers the example of two of his friends who work in Beijing as journalists and are in lockdown during the outbreak. While one friend performs music in her apartment and posts about productivity on social media, the other is admittedly depressed living in these new circumstances. Both friends are showing signs of denial, says Niconchuk: Hyperproductivity and “hypoproductivity” are equal coping mechanisms despite how they differ in societal acceptance. 

Niconchuk has seen hyperproductivity in journalists, photographers, aid workers and doctors. The adrenaline rush, or “hyperproductivity high” as he calls it, can bring validation and pride in these respective fields. Ask yourself if you feel excitement from high-trauma situations. If so, “leverage that productivity to help as many people as possible,” but remember, “it is very easy to let that become an addiction and let it become a very damaging coping mechanism over time,” he said. 

Related: Explore the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation’s list of resources that provide advice on mitigating physical and emotional risk while covering COVID-19, as well as tips on creatively capturing the story while working from home.  

(Illustration courtesy of Haya Halawah/Beyond Conflict)

Strategies to self-regulate 

To calm the anxiety journalists may experience, Niconchuk recommends breathing exercises. The lungs are the first place the brain targets when adapting to stress. “Let’s remember that we’re still apes…When apes are under threat, it’s usually because of some impending attack or physical risk,” said Niconchuk. To combat this risk, more oxygen must be distributed throughout the body. To increase oxygenation, your body wants to increase breathing, particularly shallowly and quickly. This is hyperventilation, which signals back to the brain that you are, in fact, in danger. Breathing exercises hack this feedback loop. Expanding inhalations and exhalations remind the body of your safety. This is especially relevant as journalists are constantly immersed in COVID-19 information. 

Self-regulation activities, or activities that regulate emotion, are split between top-down and bottom-up. Exercises that begin with cognition are top-down strategies. “They don’t involve the body, necessarily. You’re using your mind to try to direct and pay attention to elements of the body,” Niconchuk said. 

These include:

  • Mindfulness meditation 
  • Body scans 

Bottom-up activities do involve the body to respond to stress that is being generated in the brain and in the kidneys, according to Niconchuk.

These include:

  • Yoga
  • Squeezing body parts that have lymph nodes to drain stress hormones
  • Breathing exercises 

Related: Watch San Jose Mercury News’ science and medicine reporter Lisa Krieger discuss strategies for covering COVID-19 in The Center for Health Journalism’s “Covering the Crisis: A Top Reporter’s Daily Routine.” 

Do not romanticize your work

Another common coping mechanism is to idealize your work. We’ve all heard the stories of valiant journalists exposing themselves to traumatic situations to get a story, but we rarely hear the consequences those efforts had on their mental health. Niconchuk acknowledges that sometimes danger is unavoidable for journalists, but they need to understand why they are getting into it and what they can do to cope with its effects. 

“Don’t romanticize exposing yourself to other people’s trauma. It’s such a risk because there’s so much external validation and legitimacy to be derived from it. And it’s really unhealthy. [And] when you inevitably are going to put yourself in psychological harm’s way and immerse yourself in other people’s trauma, you have to find a way to take care of yourself,” he said.

However, Niconchuk makes a key distinction: Usually the “care” advice is accompanied with the phrase “‘if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of others,’” which, for him, is misleading.  “Journalists aren’t taking care of others, they’re covering other people’s pain, it’s very different. You’re not a care provider, you’re a narrative provider. But you do have an obligation to be healthy because you’re a human. So don’t glorify your sacrifice, don’t glorify the immersion in others’ pain, and take care of yourself.”

Editors and managers can help too

Most news outlets, like many humanitarian organizations, “really suck at providing staff care,” said Niconchuk. “Constantly reporting on human suffering does take a toll… Immersing yourself in other people’s suffering does have detrimental effects. It can create a whole set of triggers and a whole set of unwanted responses. So, those should be discussed, those should be made aware and the risks should be made aware, too.” 

Niconchuk advises editors to: “Regularly survey your freelancers and your staff to see how they’re doing, and use those assessments to guide iterative interventions with them as you move forward… Just take care of your people. It is the one thing that you’re supposed to do if you’re a boss or a manager.”

Ideally, journalists should also have mandatory check-ins with a therapist on staff, said Niconchuk. If newsrooms are worried about the cost of this service, he recommends finding a psychologist with journalism experience that will do pro bono services. He suspects pro bono psychological care will increase as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. 

Even with the support of professionals, Niconchuk advocates for self-care, which might not look the same for everyone, but it must involve self-awareness: “Ease some of the burden of being a slave to productivity and urgency. It might be necessary just to take some time…Binge watch some Netflix and don’t write your article right now, that’s fine. I don’t need you to do mindfulness meditation and yoga.”

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