Julie Posetti: post-pandemic journalism will be ‘more mission-driven, public service-focused, and audience-centred’

From battling disinformation to dealing with online abuse and mental health crisis, journalists around the globe are feeling the impact of the covid-19 pandemic. 

To get a better picture of the challenges the sector is facing, The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University launched the Journalism and the Pandemic Project in April 2020, that surveyed more than 1,400 English speaking journalists in 125 countries. 

The team has recently published the first results mapping the extent of the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the journalism industry. We caught up with ICFJ’s global research director and Newsrewired keynote speaker Dr Julie Posetti to get a better understanding of the reality behind the data. The interview has been minimally edited for brevity and clarity.

What can newsroom leaders do to help reporters deal with the psychological and emotional impact of reporting on the pandemic?

My newsroom management experience and a range of research, including that produced by the Dart Center and Dart Asia Pacific, demonstrate that it is vital that newsroom leaders first acknowledge this mental health crisis and the potentially serious and long-term consequences of psychological injury. 

Secondly, they need to provide leadership that de-stigmatises mental health impacts of covering covid-19 through Q&A sessions, blog posts, internal memos etc. 

Thirdly, they need to provide journalists access to professional counselling because some of the impacts we are seeing include increasing levels of anxiety, depression and trauma. 

Then, they could consider practical steps like providing access to training and resources to help journalists deal with psychological exposure to death and grief through frontline reporting and vicarious trauma associated with online exposure to significant human suffering. The other thing that is required is respect for the need to rest and recover between shifts, to enable flexibility to balance home and work responsibilities and to provide social support for staff to alleviate the impacts of isolation.

Many journalists said that that they experienced “much worse” online harassment during the pandemic. Why is that?

We think it is due to a combination of factors: journalists are spending more time on social media platforms because of the need to connect virtually with audiences and report remotely. This exposes them more to online toxicity and incivility, plus the levels of disinformation and politicisation accompanying the pandemic exacerbate the abuse. This is a particularly pernicious problem for women journalists. There is also the issue of the failure of the platforms to adequately respond to the targeting of journalists online and during the pandemic. We have seen politicians target journalists and journalism in ways that legitimise online harassment and give abusers agency. We are currently undertaking a parallel research project in partnership with UNESCO to study online violence globally. We will start releasing our findings towards the end of the year. 

Tell us about the relationship between journalists and audiences during the pandemic. Your survey found that, despite all the negativity, trust in journalism has increased. Why?

This is one of the interesting aspects of our research that might initially appear paradoxical but perhaps reflects a correlation of experiences between journalists and their audiences or communities. We are all going through this incredibly difficult time together. And while some are enduring more hardship than others, we are all affected, so there is an element of shared experience between journalists and audiences which could help increase empathy and trust. But there is also a parallel shared experience of frustration with governments and political leaders mishandling responses to the pandemic or using it as a cover to attack human rights like freedom of expression. Those rights help all of us to access trustworthy, factual information, such as public health information, which could be life-saving during the pandemic. 

So, as those of us with public broadcasting backgrounds have experienced historically, in times of crisis, audiences turn to trustworthy news providers for reliable information, which now includes the desire for a guide to help wade through the swamp of disinformation. It is pleasing to see journalists in our survey both investing more deeply in their audiences and perceiving a substantial increase in trust in their journalism. 

Also, while governments and political actors may be cracking down on whistleblowers and journalists to avoid the sort of scrutiny the independent public-interest journalism provides, chilling sources in the process, this could, in fact, strengthen respect for the kind of accountability reporting that helps protect rights and save lives.

Why are many journalists unhappy with how social platforms handle mis- and disinformation?

There is a real fatigue with the failure of the platforms to respond to disinformation adequately and swiftly, and a lack of trust among journalists in the platforms to act beyond the interests of profit. This is particularly applicable to Facebook, where PR has been seen to trump action at times. What our survey showed was a very high level of exposure to disinformation – 80 per cent of respondents said they encountered it weekly, but for most this was a much more frequent occurrence. They said they saw it spreading most prolifically on Facebook and 22 per cent had complained about disinformation to the company – more than 80 per cent said they had referred disinformation to one of the platforms for investigation but Facebook was the most complained about. The most common response they noted receiving when thy did refer disinformation to one of these companies was no response at all. So, I suppose it is no surprise that we found real dissatisfaction with their responses among our globally diverse respondents. 

“Newsroom funding” was identified as an urgent need to address by the majority of the surveyed journalists. Should more organisations adopt subscription and membership models?

The top identified need was indeed financial support and our respondents told us about some catastrophic financial impacts of covid-19 on their outlets. There is evidence that membership-based journalism, and those news outlets deeply rooted in their communities through public service journalism with diversified business models, have fared better in pockets than many others, especially those over-dependent on advertising. 

Take Daily Maverick in South Africa, Rappler in the Philippines, and De Correspondent in the Netherlands, for example. One reason for this may be the fact that they are so invested in collaborative reporting with their audiences and generate high levels of trust from core audiences. Researcher and professor Damian Radcliffe has pulled together a great resource with examples of innovative responses to the crisis from news outlets that is worth digging into. But there is no burying the bad news that for many independent news publishers, covid-19 is proving devastating. 

What are your thoughts on the impact of the pandemic on journalism, beyond the survey results?

We started this project with two main goals: mapping the impacts of the pandemic on journalism, and informing the recovery, part of which would need to involve a reimagining of journalism. As we head into the second wave of covid-19, we have to concede that this is likely to be much tougher and longer project than anticipated because the pandemic has dug itself in and the impact has already been devastating. 

It now seems inappropriate to revive talk of this being a transformative moment that will speed up journalism’s necessary reinvention. This was, after all, called journalism’s extinction event. Like our respondents indicated, first, we need to survive. Then, we can begin to recover, and hopefully rebuild. Nearly half of our respondents shared their vision for what post-pandemic journalism might look like. We will analyse those responses and publish what we learn as the project goes on. But we have already concluded that the model emerging will be more mission-driven, public service-focused, and audience-centred.

Dr Julie Posetti will give a keynote speech at Newsrewired on 1 December 2020.

You might be interested in …