We must never lose sight of the big story here: the devastating loss of life in Canada and around the world, and the myriad, merciless ways the COVID-19 pandemic has targeted older adults and racialized communities. But perhaps somewhere below the fold, we ought to spare a thought for the journalists who have brought us stories from the pandemic’s front lines for more than a year The secondary or vicarious trauma many have and will continue to deal with, a consequence of being exposed and bearing witness to the pain of trauma survivors, is what I want to address.
I have been compelled to study the intersection of journalism and trauma for the past few years in hopes of improving how journalism schools and newsrooms train those assigned to cover difficult stories, and support them in the weeks and months afterward.
Trauma training in journalism schools and newsrooms in Canada is rather piecemeal. Some instructors may mention it, while others take a “Suck it up, buttercup” approach. It has not thus far been a fundamental part of the curriculum in the same way writing leads, learning about journalism ethics, or cutting audio and video clips are.
There is also little on-the-job support and the informal peer support that does exist in many newsrooms has melted away now that most journalists are working from home.
Journalists can usually get some space from even the most consuming stories. Whether it’s a bus crash in Saskatchewan, a mass shooting in Nova Scotia, or a van attack in downtown Toronto, the people assigned to cover it usually get to go home when it’s over.
Not so with COVID-19, when many journalists might spend their days reporting on the pandemic and their nights worrying about a parent or grandparent in long-term care. During last spring’s lockdown, and again for some in Ontario earlier this year when the Ford government kept schools closed after the Christmas break, journalists may have found themselves bouncing a baby on their lap while simultaneously trying to listen to a livestream of the prime minister’s daily press conference or overseeing a virtual math lesson in between calls with sources.
And perhaps more than any story they’ve covered in their careers, the pandemic is relentless. Every day, news outlets bring us the latest on how many new cases there are and how many more people have died of COVID-19. Collecting those numbers, which is someone’s job, is to reckon every day with how many more people in your city or country have died and how many more families have been plunged into unimaginable grief.
Talking to those families is also someone’s job, but physical distancing makes encounters that are already difficult seem even more cold and impersonal. A journalist wearing a mask and standing two metres away holding a boom microphone or conducting an interview via Zoom must convey so much with their eyes right now.
And when it’s over, where do they put the anger or sadness they feel? Who does the journalist debrief with?
After all, journalists are missing all the things many of us are missing: hugs, comfort, office camaraderie, after-works drinks on Fridays.
As if covering the pandemic isn’t hard enough, try doing it while simultaneously touching up your CV or finding yourself suddenly without work. According to Ryerson University’s Local News Research Project, nearly 3,000 editorial and non-editorial jobs in Canada have been cut temporarily or permanently between March 2020 and February 2021. Dozens of papers and magazines have cancelled some or all print editions and 34 news outlets – 27 community newspapers, five radio stations and two television stations – have closed permanently.
These aren’t just numbers. These are communities that may now have less access to local news and information at a time of urgent public need.
Journalists are also not immune to the corrosive effects of misinformation and disinformation, and how those ills have manifested throughout the pandemic. Ills that have particularly been on display at some anti-mask demonstrations in recent months. Journalists have been heckled, hugged by unmasked men and intimidated, all for doing their jobs in public.
These are the examples of in-person interactions. Much of what people say to and about journalists on social media would be unprintable here.
Many news outlets do provide access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). You see the posters in newsrooms above water fountains and inside washrooms. They’re not nothing, but their value shouldn’t be overstated. Most provide a limited number of sessions to people, as opposed to the kind of in-depth and ongoing support a journalist might need if they’re really struggling.
This content was originally published here.