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Asiavision’s Global News Forum: Ensuring good mental health for journalists covering the pandemic

The ABU’s Global News Forum 2020 took the form of a webinar on the story-of-the-decade, entitled COVID-19 and the challenge to journalism. It was a virtual platform of support for Asiavision broadcasters as news leaders reflected on their many challenges and diverse experiences during the pandemic.

The Keynote Speaker was Dr Anthony Feinstein, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and co-author of a recent Reuters Institute study which found that one in four journalists was reporting ‘clinically significant’ anxiety post COVID-19.

He was joined on November 11 by a panel of ABU newsroom leaders – CGTN’s Head of Domestic News Gathering Xu Zhaoqun, DDI’s Head of News Operations Padma Angmo and FBC’s CEO Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

NHK’s Chief International Correspondent, Miki Ebara, moderated a lively presentation-and-discussion session before a Q+A featuring Asiavision Chairman, Indra Singh, manager news and sports at FBC Fiji, Ging Reyes, Head of News and Current Affairs at ABS-CBN the Philippines; Prasad Kaushalya, Assistant Director of English and Foreign News, SLRC Sri Lanka, and Yukako Gomi, Deputy Director, Media Strategy, NHK Japan.

More than 60 people in 24 countries from Fiji to Iran participated in the 90-minute session. They heard details from the academic study on how COVID-19 has affected the mental wellbeing of journalists; accounts of how journalists reported from the field in Wuhan when the pandemic first developed; about the challenges of running a massive news operation in multiple languages in India; and how the economic consequences of closed borders is causing serious economic problems in the Pacific.

Dr Feinstein has been studying how journalists deal with violence and trauma for 20 years. In response to overwhelming stress, some will develop conditions like PTSD, anxiety and depression. Dr Feinstein found journalists exposed to war and violence were at increased risk for these mental health issues, at rates similar to frontline combat veterans. This work by Dr Feinstein and his team has changed the way news organisations take care of their journalists and their mental health.

Fast forward to 2020 when staff from two major news organisations volunteered for the Reuters study. Their average age was 41 and just over half were women. Sixty percent were directly focused on the pandemic – going to hospitals, intensive care units, interviewing the survivors or the relatives of people who died of C-19.

The data showed 25 percent had clinically significant anxiety and 20 percent had clinically significant depression while just under 10 percent had PTSD. Dr Feinstein said the 25 percent figure for anxiety was significant because the rate was considerably higher than in the general population or for journalists working pre-pandemic. Dr Feinstein said this rate for journalists overlapped the level for first responders.

“So, this is a significant level of distress in journalists. Why would anxiety be the single biggest emotional difficulty?” Dr Feinstein asked. “[It’s] because the pandemic has taken away an enormous amount of control from people’s lives. You can’t control the infection, you can’t control the mortality rate, the economic fallout, the stock-market. We can’t control the behavior of our fellow citizens. We can’t even control our work environment – journalists were not going into their bureaux, they were working from home. So, they had lost all this control plus, on top of that, they were exposing themselves to risk by going into hospitals and intensive care units.”

Dr Feinstein said the study showed that depression was also common – 20 percent was a high rate, much higher than in journalists pre-pandemic and much higher than the general population. At nine percent, the PTSD rate was elevated but not as common as depression or anxiety. Dr Feinstein said the study did not show a lot of substance abuse – meaning journalists were not using alcohol to self-medicate their distress.

Another finding was that most journalists were working much harder – providing more output, more stories and working longer hours. Another work-related stress while WFH was covering for colleagues who were sick. Dr Feinstein said there was some good news in the data: “We saw news organisations had made counselling available to their staff and those journalists who made use of counselling benefited from it.” Just over half of the sample – 52 percent – was receiving counselling for COVID-related anxiety, depression or stress and this group was significantly less anxious or depressed than journalists who weren’t getting therapy.

From January, CGTN’s Head of Domestic News Gathering Xu Zhaoqun worked for three months with 10 teams of reporters and crew in Wuhan, the pandemic’s Ground Zero. The team’s average age was 30 and some of them are still working on the front line: “In the first week, everybody was very brave, they rushed to the hospitals, to the communities but in just a couple of days we found that [was] very, very dangerous.” By the second week, Mr Xu’s staff were saying they were having problems sleeping, many of them weren’t telling their families where they were and with little information about the virus, some even worried about turning on the air-conditioning in case it spread.

Over the months, with better PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) and information, their fears diminished but the pressure and worry continued. In November, to celebrate Journalists’ Day in China, CGTN interviewed reporters for a video: “We found these people are still suffering in the bottom of their heart from their experiences in Wuhan. Some people cried for a long time, some have to wait a few minutes to continue with their interviews so we know they are still suffering from the experience. Many of our young team members didn’t have any experience of losing their beloved people, their family members, so this is their very first time to see a terrible, terrible thing.” Mr Xu said CGTN had offered counselling: “But not all like to receive – maybe because Chinese people are not good at telling other people their pain inside their heart.”

For Padma Angmo, Head of News Operations for DD News, the challenge was to organise 100 editors and a similar number of reporters in the field to broadcast across India in five languages, along with 31 regional units broadcasting in 23 local languages:

“We had the first fatality in our organisation on May 26, just before the lockdown. That was quite a shock for everyone – it caused quite a panic in the newsroom. Since, we have had 20 positive cases in the newsroom itself and an equal number in the field. Thankfully, all of them have recovered.

After the Lockdown, it has been quite a challenge to make the newsroom function at the same time as taking care of our staff. [We had] to keep them insulated, isolated from each other but at the same time, keep the newsroom functioning,” Ms Angmo said.

The answer was to divide up the workforce so 25 percent of staff were always in the newsroom: “If someone got sick, another team could take over.” Early on, ahead of government safety rules, DD News made sanitisers available and provided masks and face guards. With the public transport system closed down, DD News also provided transport to work. Ms Angmo said it was helpful for staff morale that the Director General and all senior staff did not work from home and were always available. To calm anxieties as colleagues got sick, the Newsroom started a WhatsApp group:

“We tried to keep speaking to one another. Counselling is not something we have done until now but after this Webinar, I would like to recommend to our hierarchy that we need to go for counselling. [Although] India has a very strong support system at family level, the Health Ministry has found that there is a lot of mental stress.”

As India’s national broadcaster, DD joined with private media and the government to develop a specific program called Doctors Speak, a one-hour phone-in program. Ms Angmo said that in a country with many cultural constraints where counselling was not common, the phone-in gave the audience anonymity and the courage to ask questions. She said many questions were related to mental health and emotional wellbeing: “And while interacting with the calls, our journalists benefited a lot, indirectly.”

The COVID-19 experience has been very different for Fijian Broadcasting Corporation CEO Riyaz Sayed Khaiyum and his staff. With few cases, Fiji has been largely unaffected by the health aspects of the pandemic: “Life in Fiji is really normal – [in] the streets of Suva, the capital, nothing’s changed, everyone goes to work, everyone meets,” he said.

But the economic fallout has been significant. Between 60 and 70 percent of Fiji’s economy is based on tourism and that revenue has dried up: “The economy is suffering terribly. Many people are without jobs, especially where tourism is concentrated. We think [as a national broadcaster] that we should be responsible for bringing about good cheer so … we have been concentrating on television content that is more entertaining, that is more fun, that has got more humour because we believe that people need that sort of escapism from the woes of not having a job.”

FBC’s revenue is down about 80 percent which has changed the way the national broadcaster does business: “We have stopped buying content which has forced us into creating content for ourselves.

Sometimes it is more expensive to create your own content … but we are trying to develop content that is cheaper in the long run – nothing too complicated, more studio-based stuff. Lots more comedy and in-studio talk shows. We are concentrating on entertainment because we’re trying to give people a break. Mentally, it’s affecting more people than journalists – most journalists still have a job.”

In an effort to focus on positive news, FBC has been broadcasting a 15-minute program each night on inspirational stories about the COVID pandemic from around the world: “We are encouraging people to not lose hope, to try out new things to generate income. We are doing programs on backyard farming, telling people how to grow their own food and have fun at the same time and interact more with family.”

Moderator Miki Ebara asked Dr Feinstein what the media could do for the mental well-being of their audiences. Dr Feinstein said: “One of the challenges is that news can be consistently negative – [it] can make people worried and anxious. I tell my patients, limit your exposure to the media. You can’t avoid the media – avoidance is a very bad coping strategy – but limit it. Just watch one bulletin to get up to date but [don’t be] glued to the television because if you do, you will get this unremitting diet of negative stories. [I am] pleased to hear Fiji is focusing on positive stories and people’s resilience, which I think is fantastic. Otherwise it’s all just negative – it’s not just the pandemic, it’s the economy, it’s the stock-market, it’s the election – one negative thing after another. Life needs to be more balanced and that’s one of the challenges.


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