Key quotes: The pandemic's effects on journalism

by Abby Geluso
Nov 4, 2020 in COVID-19 Reporting
Using a sanitizing wipe to clean off a laptop keyboard

In early October, IJNet’s parent organization, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University released the preliminary findings of their English-language survey aimed at understanding the pandemic’s effects on journalists and newsrooms. The survey received 1,406 responses from respondents in 125 countries. 

Last week, ICFJ convened a virtual panel to discuss the results and their implications. The panel included Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa, New York University professor and media critic Jay Rosen, Columbia University professor and Tow Center director Emily Bell and ICFJ director of global research Dr. Julie Posetti.

Here are the key takeaways from their discussion: 

Physical and mental health

According to the survey findings, 70% of respondents noted negative psychological and emotional impacts from covering the pandemic. The top five negative reactions affected at least one third of respondents and included increased anxiety, burnout/exhaustion, difficulty sleeping, sense of helplessness, and dark and negative thoughts.

  • “We were very struck that the psychological and emotional impacts of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis was identified by a large majority of people who responded,” said Professor Emily Bell.
  • “To underscore what we’ve identified as a mental health crisis within journalism, there’s been some other research with smaller samples,” said Dr. Posetti. “Also 82% of our respondents described at least one negative or psychological or emotional reaction to the pandemic.”
  • Ressa recognized that mental health would be a challenge and offered group and individual counseling for Rappler staff after the onset of the pandemic.

[Read more: Mental and physical health of reporters during COVID-19.]

Freedom of the press

According to the preliminary survey report, 20% of respondents experienced more harassment during the pandemic. Fourteen percent of respondents reported direct censorship of their reporting, and 14% experienced political pressure to produce positive coverage of government and elected officials.

  • “There were a lot of instances identified that really underlined the way in which particularly states around the world have used COVID-19 as a cloak, if you like, to either extend their existing attempts to suppress critical independent journalism, or restrict it, or to introduce new impacts,” said Dr. Posetti.

Spread of disinformation

The most common sources of disinformation according to respondents were regular citizens (49%), political leaders and elected officials (46%) and attention-seeking trolls (43%). Eighty percent of respondents said they encounter disinformation at least once a week, with the majority coming from Facebook (66%), Twitter (27%) and WhatsApp (35%).

  • Prof. Bell pointed out that when combining all government-related sources of disinformation, including political leaders, government agencies and government troll networks, then “the governmental role in spreading disinformation far outstrips everything else.”
  • As the panelists discussed disinformation tactics, Rosen introduced the term, “flooding the zone,” as it’s known in the U.S., or “firehose of falsehood,” as it’s known in Russia. These terms describe a tactic used by disinformation actors on social media, during which the goal is to flood channels with theories and falsehoods, often conflicting information, for the purpose of creating controversy and distrust. 
  • Ressa also discussed a tactic, which she calls “insidious manipulation,” particularly via foreign influence. In this case, a piece of information has trickled down through different media to the point that the original source is no longer attached, and the audience doesn’t realize they are being manipulated. She referred to it as behavior modification, rather than advertising. To better understand, Ressa recommends exploring the example of Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election.
  • Ressa believes steps journalists should take to find a solution to the spread of disinformation is to work with the platforms, be fact checkers, build our own tech, find a new business model for journalism and build a sustainable community.
  • Both Ressa and Rosen called for a legitimate Facebook oversight board. “There’s all kinds of problems with it, but it's one of the few things that you can even imagine being as powerful as the platform,” said Rosen. “You can’t eliminate it no matter what your ideological views on regulation are or how many scare scenarios you can dream up. Regulation has to be part of the picture.”

[Read more: How has the pandemic affected journalism? New report offers a sobering snapshot.]

Economic effects on the newsroom

The survey found that 17% of newsrooms saw more than a 75% decline in revenue during COVID-19.

  • “I think what we’re seeing here is the collapse of the advertising market,” said Prof. Bell.
  • “The world we knew has been destroyed and we have to now create it,” said Ressa. She and Rappler have had to reimagine their business model before. In 2019, they lost 49% of their advertisers following 11 legal cases and 8 convictions against her.
  • “We were forced to find another business model which was based on data and tech,” Ressa said. “The very same conditions will spurn a creative solution and that’s what happened to us. That business model using data and tech grew 12,000% and so as the advertising shrank, we found a new business model that not only was research driven, but could also replace this collapsing model.”
  • Rosen noted that professionals of different fact-based industries will likely realize they need to depend on each other, and that new relationships with publics will emerge.
  • Rosen also suggested a shift toward a membership model rather than subscriptions to make up for lost revenue. “In membership you join the cause because you believe in the work, and you don’t mind that the work goes to people who don’t pay for it — in fact that’s a plus,” he said.
  • He also suggested shifting the focus away from an outlet’s monetary wealth and towards its commonwealth, which examines contributions and support from the public in the form of knowledge, time, networking and distribution.
  • Ressa believes the future of journalism is intertwined with the future of technology. “Journalists are necessary because they’re the ones who have the discipline. We have the standards, the ethics, and the courage,” she said.

Abby Geluso is a freelance reporter based in New York City.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Erik Mclean.