Andrew Garthwaite
Credit:  Andrew Garthwaite

John Crowley conducted a global survey at the start of the pandemic to assess how journalists were coping during lockdown. His findings are published in a report entitled ‘Journalism in the Time of Covid’. The report urges news leaders to heed concerns from staff about their mental well-being.

Journalism was in a quandary well before covid-19, the victim of technological disruption, disinformation, a broken advertising model and an inflated sense of its own self-worth. Distrusted by the public and vilified by politicians, the industry was slow to adapt its business to the so-called information age it covered.

The pandemic is keeping the Fourth Estate in the spotlight, posing questions about the role of journalists in delivering news, politics and culture, when they are the ones who also shape and influence the stories they report on.

This feeling of being at the centre of the conversation gives a false reading on journalism’s ability to be an influential force for good.

Market forces and changing consumer habits are stripping the industry of the power and prestige from which it derives its credibility. Questions around journalistic advocacy, objectivity and truth are dealt with in far more detail elsewhere. But amidst the sound and fury, one constituency is still being ignored – the journalists themselves.

Seemingly beset on all sides and fearful for their futures, large numbers are tired and demoralised by working long hours during covid-19. This is affecting the quality of their work.

By now, newsroom leaders really should not need to be told that many of their staff are burned out. But they stand transfixed, making minor lateral movements and seemingly unable to adapt as a tempest engulfs them.

They need to be shaken out of their stupor. My report, ‘Journalism in the Time of Covid’ is a message from those on the shop floor, and from freelancers who keep news sites going on a pittance.

The 130 respondents to my survey on the impact of covid-19 on journalism want concerns about their mental well-being to be heeded.

While this report documents the mental strain covid-19 has placed on journalists, I believe the pandemic also represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to hit the reset button.

The pandemic has sped up the transformational change that was pummelling the industry. Trends and developments that might previously have taken five years to incubate have been co-opted in a few months.

New tools, workflows and processes have come into play. This is genuinely exciting. Both newsprint and digital products have successfully been created, edited and published from bedrooms, sofas and kitchen tables.

For my 2020 survey, I received responses from the Philippines, India, Brazil, Spain, France, Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, the Netherlands, Ireland, the US, the UK and beyond. It was important to me that the insights were as global and representative as possible. Most of these responses came in April and May.

Here are my findings.

When asked if they had had a positive experience of lockdown at work, 64 per cent said no. Rather more surprising was that more than a third (36 per cent) said they had had a positive experience of lockdown when it came to their journalistic work.

Some 59 per cent said lockdown had come with further worries and stress. The question was posed through the prism of their working environment. It was clear that working from home either with families, flatmates or being on your own had exacted a toll.

The prevalence of specific attitudes to stress, as a percentage of survey respondents that reported some form of negative lockdown-stress impact. Courtesy: John Crowley

When asked directly about the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on their mood, 77 per cent of respondents reported some kind of work-related stress which came during lockdown. Of these, 57 per cent said lockdown-associated stress had affected their productivity. More than 44 per cent said it had impacted their relationships with family and friends, and 59 per cent said they had experienced moments of feeling depressed or anxious.

When asked if lockdown would radically or somewhat change newsrooms, 94 per cent agreed. Further 87 per cent said they felt their employer should be responsible or somewhat responsible for their conditions of work at home.

In addition, of those most likely to seek lasting change from their employers, 56 per cent who reported feelings of depression during lockdown said their employer had a responsibility to check in on their wellbeing.

88 per cent of those who said lockdown had affected their relationships said they wanted to improve their workstations/setup at home.

80 per cent of those who wanted to see an improvement in communications from managers reported lockdown-associated stress having a negative effect on their productivity.

Rank-and-file journalists are rarely consulted about their industry or the direction of travel. That was why I set up the SurveyMonkey questionnaire. Most spoke anonymously because they feared for their job if they were seen to criticise management or employer.

I have also conducted on-the-record interviews with five journalists about their working days. They are Chiara Carter, Alexis Akwagyiram, Sanne Breimer, Amantha Perera and Louise Bolotin.

It covers their experiences from South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, Australia and the UK on how they have dealt with journalism in the time of covid.

Andrew Garthwaite is a journalist, statistician and illustrator recently honoured by the Royal Statistical Society for statistical excellence in journalism. He has surfaced trends found in the survey and provided the visuals as well.

As for myself, I am a burned-out journalist. I have worked long hours, run newsrooms and have been made redundant. I am a news obsessive. It took until lockdown to publicly admit that the trade I love and have worked in all my adult life has exacted a heavy toll on my well-being.

I have spoken to dozens of journalists around the world about the events of 2020. This report is a tribute to them. Despite my best efforts to attract interest, this report has been self-funded. I welcome any moral or financial support in continuing my research. Get in touch @mrjohncrowley to access the full report.

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