Journalists need psychosocial and emotional support amid pandemic

Journalists need psychosocial and emotional support amid pandemic

Journalists are often among the first to arrive at the scene of challenging events, ranging from crime scenes and road accidents to natural disasters and instances of armed conflict. Accompanying this are often risks to journalists’ safety – including their physical, legal, psychological and digital safety. The current COVID-19 pandemic, in which journalists are at the frontline in fighting misinformation and keeping the public informed, adds to these risks.

As a consequence of the ongoing pandemic, journalists are currently receiving personal protective equipment to ensure their physical safety. However, they are not always trained on psychological first aid and few receive support for protecting their mental wellbeing. As a result, many journalists are not aware of the risks to their emotional well-being, even though they are routinely exposed to emotional distress and vulnerable to secondary trauma. Even if they realize they are affected, journalists often lack access to professional psychological help.

UNESCO Myanmar, with support from the Multi-Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists, works to fill this gap. In collaboration with the Myanmar Press Council, UNESCO organized an online training on psychosocial support and wellbeing for journalists from 13 to 15 May. A total of 25 journalists from all over Myanmar and a variety of backgrounds participated in the training led by Mr. Tin Aung Moe, Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology at Yangon University.

The focus of the first part of the training was to explain the concepts of trauma, post-traumatic stress and how to provide psychological first aid. In the second part, journalists learned about the importance of psychosocial wellbeing and ways to protect themselves from emotional stress. They were also provided a method to assess their own stress levels.

Throughout the training, participants drew on their professional experience to construct examples. In the discussion on psychosocial support, Ms. Aye Aye Zin, a senior media trainer at the Myanmar Journalism Institute, described how in the middle of an interview, the interviewee started crying hard and was unable to answer questions. These situations, where interview questions unintentionally trigger a strong emotional or behavioural reaction based on past traumatic experiences, are not uncommon in journalism in the field.  

“Pause for a while and show your empathy with your eyes and facial expression, listen actively and act empathetically,” Mr. Tin Aung Moe advised the participants when facing such a situation. “For example, if the interviewee is crying, you can offer them a tissue. The priority should not be to get their answer at that moment, even if this answer may improve your story.”

There are also issues of journalistic ethics to consider. “If you trigger a person by discussing past traumatic experiences for your story, you also have the responsibility to help soothe the person, he said. “After the interview, please ask the interviewee to do a gentle breathe-in and breathe-out exercise, and encourage them to visualize a peaceful and quiet landscape in their mind during the exercise. It is important to tell the interview partner to repeat this exercise over the coming days.”

However, not only interviewees are at risk of reliving trauma, but journalists themselves may also experience post-traumatic stress in their work. During the training, a journalist from Rakhine State shared his experiences from the field. When arriving at the scene he was assigned to cover, the journalist was unable to hold back his emotions and tears. To prevent situations like this, the trainer recommended that journalists prepare physically and mentally before they go into the field.

This also applies to local reporters who are familiar with the current situation and know what to expect in the field. These journalists will be able to cope with their stress better if they are trained to deal with challenging situations. Another factor that contributes to journalists’ well-being is the knowledge that their own families are safe.

Following the first training session, another session will be offered in June 2020 to more journalists interested in the topic who are prepared to share the knowledge and skills from the training with their peers. UNESCO Myanmar is also finalizing the “Guidelines for Journalists Covering COVID-19: Professional Standards and Tips for Physical and Psychological Well-being” in collaboration with Myanmar Press Council. The guidelines will be available in both English and Myanmar versions.

By Naing Naing Aye and Christian Doerfel

Naing Naing Aye is a National Project Officer at UNESCO’s Myanmar Office focusing on media legislation, access to information, journalists’ safety, sustainable development of community media as well as the promotion of media and information literacy.

Christian Doerfel is a Research Analyst at UNESCO’s Myanmar Office working on development assistance and humanitarian action.