In 2020, journalists across the world found themselves in a professional paradox: The coronavirus highlighted the importance of a vibrant press; reporters felt a renewed zeal for their work as news consumers relied on them to stay alive. At the same time, however, the crisis introduced new levels of instability and viral disinformation, which piled on to the stresses of an industry already overloaded with plenty. To better understand how members of the media are faring, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism began the Journalism and the Pandemic Project.
Between May 13 and June 30, using SurveyMonkey, we released a survey that was completed by 1,406 English-speaking journalists and news workers from 125 countries. (We also conducted the poll in Arabic, Chinese, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian; a synthesis of the complete data set will be published as the project continues; for now, you can take an extended look at our English-language results here.) Our findings are not meant to be generalizable or representative of news workers as a population, but they do provide a meaningful and actionable snapshot of the challenges journalists have faced in the first months after the World Health Organization declared covid-19 a pandemic.
At the most basic level, there was physical risk. Thirty percent of respondents who were reporting in the field during the first wave of the coronavirus outbreak said that they had not been supplied with a single piece of recommended protective equipment. Forty-five percent of respondents did not receive a face covering; 49 percent said that hand sanitizer was not provided; 84 percent did not receive appropriate technical equipment (e.g., extendable boom microphones, telescopic lenses) that would have enabled them to conduct interviews at a safe distance.
Equally disturbing was the evidence of violence against journalists, censorship, and restrictions on work that chilled reporting during the pandemic. Three percent of respondents reported having been physically attacked in connection with their work since the outbreak began. Two percent reported being fined, arrested, detained, charged, or sentenced to jail on the basis of other alleged offenses. More than 11 percent of respondents identified direct censorship of their reporting; this ranged from preemptive non-publication orders and defamation suits to takedown demands and forced shutdowns of news outlets. Around half our survey’s respondents attested to other restrictions on their journalism. Of those, 28 percent had experienced a denial of access to government representatives or other official sources; 20 percent said they had been excluded from government press conferences; 23 percent indicated that they had been unable to report due to a lack of accreditation or permit; and 20 percent said their formal freedom of information requests had been rejected. Even so, the restraints on reporting left journalists more reliant than usual on official sources (about a third of respondents described this)—despite the fact that nearly half of respondents identified political leaders and elected officials as major sources of misinformation and disinformation.
There were others spewing lies and confusion, too: over 60 percent of respondents said they were exposed to mis- and disinformation many times a week, or even more frequently. Two-thirds of our respondents (66 percent) observed that falsehoods spread most prolifically on Facebook, followed by Twitter (42 percent); WhatsApp, the closed-messaging service owned by Facebook (35 percent); and YouTube (22 percent). A high proportion of respondents—82 percent—said that they had reported the false and misleading material to the tech company hosting it, but the most common response they received was no reply at all.
Among the most striking findings of the survey is how the crisis of covid-19—combined with the dire economic and political atmosphere for news, which predated the pandemic—has transformed the personal experience of the press. Their environment is painfully difficult, marked by a startling amount of psychological and financial pressure. The daunting stress is an obstacle to accountability journalism, thoughtful structural changes to newsrooms, and the industry at large.
A strong majority of respondents identified the “psychological and emotional impacts” of dealing with the pandemic as the biggest difficulty they faced in their work. A high number of respondents (82 percent) reported having at least one negative emotional or psychological reaction. Two-thirds of respondents attested to experiencing more than one. The most common negative reactions were increased anxiety (41 percent), exhaustion and burnout (38 percent), difficulty sleeping (35 percent), a sense of helplessness connected to the pandemic (34 percent), and dark and negative thoughts (33 percent). Smaller, but significant, numbers of respondents said that they were now experiencing mental health challenges for the first time—anxiety (12 percent) and depression (8 percent).
When news workers were asked to rank what they had found most professionally difficult during the pandemic, mental health topped the list, above financial concerns:
- The psychological and emotional impacts of dealing with the covid-19 crisis (70%)
- Concerns about unemployment or other financial impacts (67%)
- The intense workload (64%)
- Social isolation (59%)
- The physical risk of contracting the virus or passing it on to others (54%)
- The technical challenges of reporting (51%)
The top three categories affected around two-thirds of the journalists we surveyed. Other respondents expressed how hard it was to balance work with childcare, as schools and kindergartens closed for weeks or, in some areas, months. Meanwhile, 24 percent said they had experienced an increase in online harassment.
In spite of these hardships, by far the most commonly reported feeling was a sense of increased commitment to the importance of journalism (61 percent). People did not, for the most part, attest to unease about the ethical dimensions of their work—even though reporting standards are a frequent source of public criticism. News consumers, as we’ve seen, have expressed dismay—and vitriol—about both-sidesism and the failure of the press to call out officials who mislead. People have complained of headlines and stories that unfairly represent marginalized groups—the same demographics that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Readers have been outraged at the commissioning of dangerously inflammatory opinion columns under the justification that it’s important to expose readers to a range of views. Perhaps this shared experience of living through a pandemic—a struggle in which journalists and their audiences are equals—can help build community and mutual understanding around news.
There is no doubt, based on our survey, that the pandemic is having a major effect on the sustainability of news publishers and the job security of journalists. Seventy percent of respondents said that they’d been affected by at least one austerity measure—from outlet closures and reduced print runs to salary cuts, layoffs, and increases in unpaid overtime. Two percent said that their outlets had been permanently closed during the pandemic; 4 percent reported temporary closure. More than 6 percent of respondents said they’d lost their jobs; a similar number had been furloughed. Twenty-one percent said their salaries had been cut.
So when it comes to the things that journalists believe would help them do their jobs more effectively, the number one item is, of course, money. When we asked how journalists prioritized their needs, 76 percent ranked resources to meet operating costs (including salaries) at the top of their list. In second place (67 percent) was training and equipment for remote reporting and production. As a number of newsrooms—including the New York Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel, the Annapolis Capital Gazette, and many other examples internationally—are being shuttered permanently, the future of journalism seems to be out-of-office. Many journalists feel unprepared.
Already, they are shifting their newsgathering practices: Sixty-seven percent of respondents described doing far more remote reporting during the pandemic—over the phone, through video and audio apps, or over email. Perhaps most noteworthy is the increased reliance on private groups on social media platforms (31 percent attested to this), such as WhatsApp and Facebook Groups. Access to these groups can be haphazard: Are they more like public meetings or private conversations? How secure are they? And what are the ethical implications of dependence on tech platforms for building communities? Reporters will increasingly have to negotiate these questions. So, too, will they have to consider the delivery of their stories: 38 percent of respondents said that, since the start of the pandemic, their news organizations had become more reliant on social platforms to create connections with their audiences.
As newsrooms move permanently to a more distributed model—making use of different media in different places—there will need to be yet more investment in digitization, in terms of how reporters are both trained and supported. There is a bright spot here: Our respondents said that their work received greater than usual engagement from audiences. A quarter had gotten more positive feedback; the same number said their audiences were more eager than ever to provide information that might be helpful. More than two-fifths of respondents felt that audience trust in their organizations’ coverage had increased during the first phase of the pandemic.
In sum, our survey paints a picture of a profession absorbed in essential work amid a decreased sense of security and an overwhelming amount of mis- and disinformation that the dominant technology platforms have failed to confront. Our findings demonstrate that a free and effective press needs not just protection from targeted violence, harassment, and political interference, but also financial support and a more rigorously regulated information environment. The stakes are obvious: there is a direct relationship between the ability of journalists to function and the public’s capacity to operate in the best interest of everyone’s health. What’s less clear is how a public-interest press can endure.
 The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is a subpartner on this project; Luminate contributed financial support for the research; and we are grateful for the feedback on the mental health and well-being questions in our poll from Dart Asia Pacific’s Dr. Cait McMahon.Julie Posetti, Emily Bell, and Peter Brown are the authors. Posetti, an award-winning journalist and academic, leads ICFJ’s global research program. Bell is the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. Brown is the Research Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and runs the Content Analysis Hub for the Publishers and Platforms project.