Anthony Feinstein is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and based at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
Our daily lives are now governed by the novel coronavirus. Such is the scale of the pandemic that numerous professions and occupations find themselves, in some cases unexpectedly, on the front lines battling the contagion. With exposure comes personal risk, most acute for the medical profession and first responders, but cooks, cleaners and checkout personnel are in the trenches too.
One profession that has escaped attention in all the anxiety surrounding risk appraisal is journalism. In a time of unprecedented crisis, we look to journalists for news of our collective plight. Never has their role been more important. In acknowledging this, we must not lose sight of the cost that the profession pays in keeping civil society informed.
For the past 20 years, I have studied how journalists have been affected by war and conflict. A consistent finding links my studies of civil wars in the Balkans, the attacks of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the drug wars in Mexico, the al-Shabab attacks in Kenya and the brutal suppression of the media in Iran. Journalists are highly resilient, but they are not immune from the emotional toll that comes with covering dangerous and traumatic events. Rates of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are elevated in those who do this work.
Now, a new threat has emerged, a silent killer that is cutting a swath through the most vulnerable in our midst and with the potential to do far worse. Journalists are at the forefront again, running toward a threat the public-health experts exhort us to stay away from. In exposing themselves in this fashion, journalists are concerned that they could become infected, thereby putting themselves and their families at risk. But this is only part of the challenge confronted. A slew of other factors are adding to the distress.
Newsrooms – a source of camaraderie and support – are shuttered. Journalists are forced to work from home, blurring the margins between family and work. And while other professions face this too, certain unique factors set journalists apart. The coronavirus news is unremittingly grim. It is relentless. There is a 24-hour news cycle that must be fed. The story is no longer confined to “others.” Now colleagues, friends and family are getting infected, becoming sick and dying. There is no clear end in sight.
In these fraught emotional times, journalists are also having their moral compasses sorely tested. Should their responses fall short, moral injury can ensue and with it feelings of shame and guilt. For example, journalists are now being asked by their fearful, overwhelmed subjects to step out of their professional role and help them in ways the journalists have neither the skills nor resources for. Good intentions alone are seldom sufficient when the needs of others are so great. The consequences of failure add to the emotional distress already felt.
As news organizations navigate these uncertain times, there is a precedent to learn from. After the attacks of 9/11, I spent time in New York City assisting journalists adjusting to the traumatic event. As with the current crisis, journalists who had chosen not to work in zones of conflict and disaster were pressed into unfamiliar front line roles, interviewing the bereaved and traumatized. It was harrowing work.
In the first week, it was evident to me that journalists, like their fellow citizens, were reeling from the sheer horror of what had taken place. But as time moved on, I became aware of another major challenge to the profession. Exhaustion.
Journalists were being asked to work very long days spilling over into nights. In doing so, routines that have sustained them in the past were abandoned, sleep was sacrificed, hurried fast foods replaced a healthy diet, exercising stopped, social arrangements were cancelled and family time was truncated or eliminated. Life apart from work was given over to the story.
In the short term, such intensity was sustainable. But as weeks turned into months, for many it was not. It was then that I started to see an upsurge in debilitating physical symptoms such as headaches, aches and pains and dizziness, the psychosomatic manifestations of unrelenting stress.
As with the aftermath of 9/11, the coronavirus pandemic will tax the endurance and stamina of journalists. But unlike the attacks of 9/11, the immediate threat has not abated, which means that news organizations, faced with the twin challenges of heightened risk to their journalists and the projected lengthy timeline of infection, must plan according.
On a positive note, there is no shortage of good, proven advice for news organizations on how to mitigate the pressures their journalists face. It is imperative for them to follow it.
The Globe and Mail
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.