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Evoking empathy or seeking solidarity: Which is preferable when covering people without homes?
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July 20, 2020, 1:37 p.m.
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Early results from a new study on mental health among journalists covering the pandemic were so worrisome that the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism decided to publish the preliminary data.

“This is early data on a vital topic,” wrote Meera Selva, the study’s co-author and the Institute’s director of the Journalist Fellowship Program, on Twitter. “It felt important to get it out there straight away to show that action is needed now.”

The sample size is small. Selva and her colleagues surveyed 73 journalists from international news organizations in June. All of them had “worked on stories directly related to the pandemic.” The survey had a 63 percent response rate. Of the group responding, about 70 percent said they were suffering from psychological distress. More than a quarter of respondents demonstrated symptoms like worry, feeling on edge, insomnia, poor concentration, and fatigue that were “clinically significant” and compatible with the diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder.

Around 11 percent reported symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, which include “recurrent intrusive thoughts and memories of a traumatic COVID-19-related event, a desire to avoid recollections of the event, and feelings of guilt, fear, anger, horror and shame.”

Selva and her co-author Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a neuropsychiatrist and professor at the University of Toronto, led a research team that interviewed longtime reporters — respondents had an average of 18 years of experience — working at large, relatively stable outlets. Ninety-nine percent reported being in good physical health.

“The situation could well be even worse in less privileged parts of the journalistic profession,” wrote Selva and Feinstein. Freelance journalists, missing from the reports of layoffs and contending with the pandemic’s impact without protections like unemployment or severance pay, are particularly vulnerable.

For example, the study found a significant correlation between psychological distress and the absence of counseling. A little more than half of journalists in the survey said they’d been offered counseling; it’s not a stretch to imagine few freelance journalists or reporters working at under-resourced news organizations have been afforded the same access.

Although only 4 percent of the respondents were on the health beat before the outbreak, 74 percent said they were currently covering health through their pandemic reporting. They were working more. A full 60 percent of respondents said they were working longer hours since the pandemic began.

The study’s authors wrote that they found a negative correlation between covering Covid-19 and a reporter’s age — an “intriguing finding” that they interpreted as news organizations showing sensitivity to their staff’s wellbeing.

“The older you are, the less likely you were to be given a COVID-19 story,” they wrote. “This may well reflect a concern on the part of news organizations that older people are more vulnerable to the effects of the infection and as such, younger journalists were more likely to be given COVID related stories.”

As Ricki Morell wrote for Nieman Reports, “the stigma of admitting a mental health challenge runs deep among people who view their work as a calling.” But a new generation of journalists, like their millennial peers, show a greater willingness to address mental health issues.

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