OPINION: For journalists, it is time to take care of themselves
Billions around the globe in lockdown, more than 1,5-million confirmed infections, over 100 000 deaths … and rising.
By Easter weekend, COVID-19 had spread into the furthest reaches of the planet. But while this is the biggest story of our lifetime, it is not bigger than our health or mental well-being.
By now, we all know how to wash our hands, wear a mask, keep a physical distance.
As journalists continue working as essential workers, we must not forget to take the necessary steps to protect our mental health.
Journalists are often encouraged to ignore their fears in pursuit of the story. And this is a stressful time.
It is clear though that this approach is not enough in this pandemic. This invisible threat can be more scary than the violence our photographers and reporters often encounter.
The danger to our safety is more than physical. There is real stress right now.
In my discussions with journalists, it’s clear that workers in the sector are beginning to feel pressure.
“It feels like I am working all the time,” said a sub-editor who spoke to frayintermedia recently.
“I go out to do stories and then I could potentially bring the virus home,” said a multimedia reporter.
“I find the process of getting scanned very stressful - I’m so fearful of registering a high temperature and being hospitalised,” said a reporter.
“I’m really worried about sending reporters out to do a story when they could potentially be exposed to the virus,” said a news manager.
Recognising the potential risks is a starting point. Preparation is key. Journalism is important but not more important than your life.
All journalists should focus both on the work at hand - the mission if you like - and what can be done to reduce risk.
Know your limitations - and your triggers. When you are checking out equipment before going out on a job, ask yourself whether you can deal with the trauma or anxiety at that moment in your life.
Are you in a particularly vulnerable space? Are you able to focus and not endanger yourself by being distracted?
Stress has an important role. When you experience high levels of stress, for example, your body enters a state of hyper-alertness as your defence mechanisms are activated.
So fear is actually a good thing because it heightens your awareness of possible danger.
But when you begin to experience rapid heart palpitations, excessive sweating, crying, or even physical pain, you must seek medical advice in order to protect yourself.
If you are in a stressful situation, take immediate steps to alleviate the negative impact. The easiest is to just breathe.
If this persists then try a breathing exercise.
Assess whether you can step out of the stressful environment. If you can’t, see if you can send your body physical indicators of change: Unclench. Stretch.
If you are standing, ground yourself - both feet firmly on the group, legs separated. If you are sitting, uncross your legs and unfold your arms. Send your body a signal that you are taking action.
But self-help starts even before entering stressful situations. If you are leading a team, then lead by example. Create a culture of safety first. Know and implement your organisation’s policies around risk management and journalist safety.
Get enough sleep. Now is not the time to be working while tired. It increases the risks of making a mistake such as touching your face or picking up something that might be contaminated.
Eat properly. Keep your body fuelled and energetic.
Avoid stimulants such as drugs or alcohol.
If you are working from home, set some boundaries. Know when to close the door and then to walk away from the unrelenting story.
Journalism is not a 9-5 job but you need to find space to de-stress and unwind. Take an hour out of your day to stretch, dance or walk in the garden or listen to music.
Too much isolation can be bad so engage with others about non-journalism things. Move away from the online meeting and set up an online coffee with a friend.
It is fine to feel stress. Remote working means managers, colleagues and friends have fewer signals that something might be wrong.
Don’t be afraid to let them know that you are overwhelmed. Ask for help if you need it. If you need timeout, then say so.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. Be kind to yourself. Your work is important. You are important.
You can find more resources here: https://dartcenter.org/resources/covering-coronavirus-resources-journalists