Journalism’s ‘extinction event?' ICFJ and Tow Center launch global COVID-19 survey to aid the recovery

byJulie Posetti and Emily Bell
May 13, 2020 in COVID-19 Reporting
Interview

The effects of COVID-19 are already being framed as an “extinction event”  for journalism, causing dozens of news outlets to collapse around the world. Tens of thousands of newsroom jobs have been lost or reshaped by the pandemic. 

That’s why we are launching a global survey today to track and assess the impacts of the pandemic on journalism worldwide, and to help reimagine its future. 

We aim to find out what is needed to keep  journalism viable:  What does the field require in both short-term and long-term support and training? How are journalists responding creatively to the challenges of reporting during the time of coronavirus? What can be done to help protect journalists and defend media freedom during the pandemic?

[Read more: UN-ICFJ research highlights journalism's critical role in fighting COVID-19 disinformation]

An urgently needed survey

The pandemic has rapidly accelerated trends already evident worldwide: the migration and disappearance of advertising; the shrinkage and disappearance of print; the erosion of investigative reporting capability; and the collapse of local news. It is also being used as a cloak by despots, dictators and autocrats to ramp up attacks on journalists, demonize journalism, and undermine media freedom.

Our independent survey aims to help direct responses to the areas of greatest need. It is the first work of the Journalism and the Pandemic Project - a research partnership between the International Center For Journalists (ICFJ) and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Leading a team of  highly experienced  journalists and  academic researchers,  our goal is to understand the scale of the crisis for journalism, so that we can collaboratively inform the recovery. To do that, we need news outlets, reporters, editors and other media workers around the globe to actively participate.

At this  transformative moment for journalism, the more we know about the impacts on news organizations, reporters, editors and other media workers, the more we can assess both the net losses and the potential benefits on the road to recovery. There are already a number of initiatives emerging from philanthropic organizations, commercial technology companies and state actors, but we have yet to see how their various agendas will reform the field - during and after the crisis.  

[Read more: Impact-driven journalism during the pandemic]

What’s at stake?

The UN Secretary General himself recently declared that: “No one can take the place of the [news] media during this pandemic in providing the public with information and analysis, and in countering rumours and distortions.” António Guterres understands that accurate, reliable information about COVID-19 - and robust, independent critique of responses to the crisis - are literally a matter of life and death.

At the same time, the pandemic has delivered some of the most valuable journalism we’ve ever seen - with many journalists around the world risking their lives daily to bring us stories from the frontlines of a global disaster. Stories that move us. Stories that help us sort facts from fiction, and reliable sources from disinformation peddlers. Stories that call the powerful to account. Stories that make a difference.

What do we want to know?

(1) How is coronavirus affecting the viability of the news industry and media workers’ job security? 

COVID-19 has already delivered death blows to a growing list of news outlets - particularly crucial local news providers. We are asking participants to detail the impacts of the pandemic on their employment, and the sustainability of their news organizations. We want to know if your organization has been killed off or temporarily shuttered by coronavirus. And we want to learn about the impacts on individual media workers (including freelancers) from job losses to salary cuts.

(2) How is the pandemic transforming journalism research, reporting and storytelling?

Despite the manifold pressures on newsrooms, there  are many great examples of innovation and enterprise too.  Journalists  are developing new techniques for distance reporting, using data and open-source investigative techniques to tell stories with more clarity and precision. We want to hear about these as much as the restrictions and cuts.

(3) What are the new and emerging journalism safety challenges associated with coronavirus?

How many media workers are being sent into the field to report as ‘essential workers’ on a deadly story without appropriate protective equipment? How are vulnerable freelancers impacted? What are the mental health impacts of exposure to human suffering and grief on such a global scale for journalists and those who work with them? What has been their experience of the online violence escalating during the pandemic? Is pandemic-induced burnout becoming a major issue? And, as newsrooms work remotely, through third party software, how does this affect security practices?

(4) What are the main media freedom threats posed by the pandemic?

Around the world, under the cover of COVID-19, journalists are being attacked, the law is being weaponized against journalism, and governments are cracking down on whistleblowers, inhibiting the essential work of accountability reporting. We want to learn about the extent and costs of these incursions via media workers on the ground - from Western democracies under pressure, to Global South blindspots. 

(5) How are journalists experiencing the ‘disinfodemic’ and working to counter it?

Journalism is not just at risk of being swamped in what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls the ‘infodemic’. It is also a target of, and a bulwark against what UNESCO calls a  ‘disinfodemic’. So, what encounters are journalists, fact-checkers and other media workers having with mis/disinformation? What are the impacts of the ‘disinfodemic’ on their work? And how are news outlets working to counter the information pollution fueling the pandemic?   

(6) How has coronavirus affected content distribution and audience engagement? 

A far faster path to digitization, the rising importance of subscriptions, the role of the platforms and algorithmic distribution have all been amplified during the pandemic. Reported audiences for news in many parts of the world have been at a historic high, but how are newsrooms adjusting to the increased interest and decreased revenue many are experiencing simultaneously? 

We’re in this together: Here’s what you can do to help 

We can hear you asking: “Who has time to fill in a survey in the middle of a pandemic?” We understand that many journalists and news organizations around the world are fully absorbed in the fight for survival in the midst of reporting what is arguably the biggest story of our times. But if journalism is to survive the pandemic, we need quality research to help inform the recovery. 

We also think it is vitally important that the voices of those doing the work are heard and counted - in more than labor statistics or bar graphs. In exchange for your time and responses, we will also publish regular updates based on our research that give a fuller picture of what is happening at ground level. 

The survey is currently available the following languages:


The Journalism and the Pandemic Project is an ICFJ collaboration with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. It is part of a broader initiative by ICFJ to provide critical aid to journalists covering COVID-19 as it becomes one of the most important and complex stories of our time. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is collaborating with us on the journalism safety and press freedom aspects of the study.

For more information or expressions of interest in collaboration on this project, please contact the researchers at: PandemicProject@icfj.org 

Dr. Julie Posetti is ICFJ’s Global Director of Research. An award-winning journalist with three decades experience, she is also a senior researcher affiliated with the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Professor Emily Bell is Founding Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, and a leading thinker, commentator and strategist on digital journalism.  The majority of Emily’s career was spent at Guardian News and Media in London working as an award winning writer and editor both in print and online.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash