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In reporting on COVID-19, the front line is the screen in front of you (Commentary)

  • Reporting the first universal, social media-dependent emergency of this generation, the COVID-19 pandemic, has compelled journalists to adapt to drastically altered working conditions.
  • Dealing with mass anxiety and personal fears can leave a strong impact, especially for those on the front line of the story, including journalists.
  • The various electronic devices used by journalists for gathering and disseminating news is also the door to a cesspool of fake news, disinformation and a major trauma trigger.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Every day for the past week or so, I have woken up only to find a daily dose of more than 300 messages on my mobile phone. Piled up overnight on different platforms, they come from colleagues spread out all over the world, engaged in reporting the first universal, social media-dependent emergency of our generation: COVID-19.

There are messages from colleagues in Sri Lanka, six and a half hours behind where I am currently based, desperately looking for the correct figures for infections.

They navigate data packets of fake news, misinformation and political hyperbole that hit them at high speed, while trying to deal with mass anxiety in the country as well as personal fears. They work from home, staring at their screens, while an eerie silence tinged with fear reigns outside.

Their main, and in some instances only, newsgathering and dissemination resource is the screen in front of them.

From the U.S., a colleague talked to me about “adjusted reporting circumstances” — a sanitized version of the COVID-19-influenced mass application of social distancing.

Colleagues who never took a notebook home are now using their kitchen table as a workstation. They work while their kids, who are on compulsory school holiday due to the global health emergency, laugh, jump around and fight with each other.

As the number of COVID-19 infections increases, so does the advice coming in from IT departments on preparing to work without access to a physical office. I occasionally work out of a university shared space and was informed to take all my hard disks when I leave each day. We were told that the offices could be inaccessible within very short notice and that the situation was not likely to change soon. “Prepare for six months of this,” was the advice.

The inability to work from an office and the severe restrictions placed on personal mobility have made something that was ubiquitous quite indispensable: our various electronic communication devices.

A notice placed at the gate of a home under quarantine in Sri Lanka’s northwest. The home’s occupants had recently returned from Italy, now the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image courtesy of V. Priyatharshan.

Social media-dependent reporting

Today, the screen in front of each of us is our main source of information and our main news dissemination mechanism. It is also the door to a cesspool of fake news and disinformation and a major trauma trigger.

News outlets have to adjust to day-to-day changes that come with the new working conditions. How are staff going to be available, how to plan taking part in live-streaming press events, and how to change reporting concepts to deal with audiences who are not only homebound but likely to be spending a considerable amount of time online?

As newsrooms change to meet the COVID-19 threat while covering it, so do journalists. The adaption needs to go beyond the hardware and software; it needs to take serious stock of mental well-being.

Online reporting tools have made our jobs much easier. But they have also opened up a new set of dangers in online trauma threats. From abuse to threats to doxing to user-generated content, these threats are varied, increasingly potent and quite sophisticated.

In the messaging groups used by journalists, while tips are abundant, so are expressions of anxiety. Some are visibly worried about children and elderly relatives; others are exasperated by fake information and 24/7 efforts to debunk them. A few even talk about how to deal with screen time.

The digital forums are the only effective means of personal communication. These social safety nets are among the first lines of defense for journalists. But for digital communication to be that, a sense of camaraderie and openness to discuss hard, personal issues needs to be fostered.

COVID-19 is a story where there is no distinguishable front line. There is no on/off button for this assignment until the pandemic is brought under control. There is no getting on and off assignment. Each one of us is now not only a health reporter but a trauma reporter as well. And our primary work instrument is the screen in front of us.

Cait McMahon, head of the DART Centre Asia Pacific, advocates simple, practical steps that will allow journalists to gain control.

“One of the things that renders us powerless, and more impacted, is lack of control; so try to find a way to take control.”

The idea is to take breaks. This does not happen easily or without effort, especially if the equipment of choice is the mobile. This has to be initiated and imposed diligently.

It’s harder when there are three tweets on #COVID19 every second, worse when the buzz never stops.

Sometimes we need to control our benevolent intentions and rein in. An individual journalist cannot fact-check everything. There needs to be a break.

Use the leftover energy to make your work robust. “Fact- checking absolutely everything will give you a feeling a sense of pride in the ability to relay accurate and newsworthy information,” McMahon says.

And take time off do other things that form a part of life. Turn off the screen, take a walk, even in your own garden, listen to music, play with kids, pets, exercise, yoga, anything that will make you de-stress. The psychological segues that make us feel calmer.

McMahon offers one more piece of advice: “Talking to friends about fun things and NOT constantly talking COVID-19.”

Under ordinary circumstances, the most potent online trauma threats are abuse, threats, doxing and trolling. In the reporting environment dominated by the COVID-19 outbreak, the biggest threat is likely to be the content, both genuine and fake.

Threat levels are also likely to fluctuate depending on the personal and professional circumstances.

Most important is to acknowledge that digital trauma is a real threat, which has been heightened in the current context. It is advisable to take control of your daily routines, make sure the segues are in place before you get on the course.


More resources are available at The DART Center, Poynter Institute, International Press Institute and the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN).


Amantha Perera is a post-graduate researcher on online trauma threats faced by journalists, and their impact, at Central Queensland University, Melbourne. He has more than 15 years of experience as a journalist, with work published by TIME, Reuters, the Guardian and the Washington Post. Perera is a regional coordinator and trainer for the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma, Columbia University.


Banner image of mask-wearing journalists attending a media briefing in Colombo, courtesy of Ceylon Today News Desk.

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