The COVID Reporters Are Not Okay. Extremely Not Okay.

An underprepared industry is losing a generation of journalists to despair, trauma, and moral injury as they cover the story of a lifetime.

by | May 6, 2021

Illustration by Ning Yang.

When I told my editors at The Daily Beast that I needed to quit my job as the newsroom’s lead COVID reporter, I couldn’t even say the word “quit.”

Even now, weeks later, it feels like admitting failure.

I was working my dream job in a newsroom I loved where I was writing about what felt like the most important beat in the world. I felt lucky to be employed and alive in the middle of a global pandemic.

But in between meetings and interviews and filing stories, I was falling apart. I was writing poems about suicide. I went whole days without eating at all. At one point, I collapsed onto the floor from dehydration. I was vomiting from stress. I developed a stye in my left eye. I wasn’t getting out of bed most days. I was crying all the time. My nightmares, in which I was shot or raped or watching coworkers burn alive in front of me, scared me so much that some nights I refused to sleep at all. When I wasn’t too afraid to sleep, I was still restless because I was too angry or too anxious or too sad or too filled with shame. I sometimes woke in the early morning hours with bile climbing up my throat and the simmer of heartburn in my chest. There were times I took sick days because I couldn’t stop sobbing long enough to string even a few pitches together.

I was struggling to stay above water when the footage of the January 6 insurrection triggered the post-traumatic stress disorder I thought I’d shaken years ago. By the time someone I loved died a few weeks later, I was already drowning.

I can’t remember what sparked it, but one night during dinner with my family I started dissociating. I was trying to figure out how they were experiencing joy, whether it was even real, what a smile looks like, and how I could emulate it. Soon afterward, I started thinking through the financial realities of quitting. I was finally numb enough to care more about curbing the onslaught of new physiological and mental fire alarms going off in my body than my fear of failure.

When I announced my decision on February 8, I just barely mustered the courage to be honest about it.

“While I’m tempted to be vague about my departure, I also believe it’s important to acknowledge the profound exhaustion, loss, grief, burnout, and trauma of the past year covering—and living in—a mass casualty event that has changed all of our lives,” I tweeted at the time. “For now, I must take a break. I know exactly how rare it is to have a support system and circumstance that enables me to acknowledge—and then act on—that fact.”

It had been clear for months that many of us were struggling. Still, the isolation of the pandemic had me convinced that my experience of drowning was unique, and that maybe I just couldn’t handle a hard job. But in response to those tweets, a chorus of reporters and editors — in public, via Twitter DM, and by email — chimed in to offer solidarity and to say they felt the same way. I heard the same things from TV, newspaper, and digital journalists, in Austin and New York, at outlets ranging from conservative-leaning to mainstream to liberal.

I have since interviewed a dozen local and national journalists. Many of them told me they do not feel supported by newsroom leaders; that they do not have the tools they need to handle the trauma they are absorbing; and that most of their bosses don’t seem to care about how bad it has gotten. Some said they are still finding themselves sobbing after meetings, between meetings, on calls during work, or when the day ends.

Much has been written about burnout among healthcare workers and teachers and lawyers, and about how the mental health crisis has created a “parallel pandemic” of PTSD and anxiety and depression. But, despite the spate of headline-worthy media departures, the industry has failed to examine how and why COVID reporters in particular are struggling so much — or what can be done about it. 

Six weeks after I announced my resignation, Stacy-Marie Ishmael stepped down from her job as editorial director for the Texas Tribune, citing the “relentless” and “breakneck pace” at which she had been working for the past year. “I totally burned out,” she said. At the same time, Millie Tran, the Tribune’s chief product officer, announced that she too was leaving to take a break.

“It has been impossible for me to separate what’s been happening in the world, which we’ve been covering rigorously and intensely for these 12 months, from what’s happening in my own life and in the lives of my friends, family and communities,” Ishmael wrote to the Tribune’s staff.

A few days later, my friend Stephen Paulsen announced that he was leaving his job at The Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa, Texas to take time off, citing a year of COVID reporting work that felt like “running a marathon.”

Two weeks later, Megan Greenwell, editor of WIRED, tweeted that, like Tran and Ishmael, she was stepping down after realizing that she was “totally drained.”

Susie Banikarim, formerly executive vice president and head of global newsgathering at Vice, said she left her position in January because she was fried after “a relentless year” in which she lost the ability to disconnect from work. “No amount of Peloton or meditation was helping,” she tweeted.

Some in the industry left their jobs more quietly. One former pandemic reporter told me she quit writing about the coronavirus because doing it for a year “ruined me.” A former political reporter at a major cable news network who covered the congressional response to COVID told me she left her job after “eight months of being exhausted and hating my job and wanting to quit journalism entirely.” It was worsened by the death of a loved one to the coronavirus, and it took months before she started feeling like herself again, she said.

“I think the standard, at least for [my network], was to work very hard and be miserable and not complain about it,” she said. “I just know I had to leave for my mental health.”

One healthcare reporter who currently works at a national outlet and has repeatedly broken exclusive stories this year told me she began taking an antidepressant over the past year for the first time in her life, in large part due to the stress of covering the pandemic.

“We’re being traumatized by the pandemic and then retraumatized by reporting on it and talking to healthcare workers,” she said. “I remember someone telling me that the reason they were talking to me was because they were afraid people would die if they didn’t. That just really hit me in a way that it hadn’t before: People could literally die if we did our jobs wrong.”

That weight has been profoundly felt by reporters at some of the most widely read outlets in the country.

“At some point, I just turned into a sponge, taking on all this sadness and anger that I was surrounded by,” the lead COVID-19 reporter at one national outlet told me in March. She said it was hard to watch the same scenario — increases in coronavirus cases, then increased deaths overwhelming local infrastructure when more stringent policies could have prevented them — play out in New York, then California, and then the South. It felt like conducting the same interviews over and over again; only the sources were new.

“The worst-case scenario was repeating itself,” she said. “Why hadn’t Texas and Arizona learned from New York and New Jersey? Was that partly the media’s fault? Should we have written stories a different way?”

An editor suggested that she might be suffering from “moral injury,” a psychological term for the damage done when a person feels they might have perpetrated, witnessed, or failed to prevent acts that violate their moral and ethical values.

Bruce Shapiro, executive director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, compared moral injury — which was first studied in soldiers and journalists who had covered war zones and terror attacks — to pouring gasoline on the fire of trauma.

Shapiro cited a study of the journalists who covered the 2011 Oslo terror attack, which he said found that “reporters who felt they had committed ethical breaches in the course of their work had much higher levels of psychological distress.” Moral injury isn’t a separate diagnosis, but it’s a component that worsens burnout and PTSD, said Shapiro.

“When we feel like our reporting has become part of a problem, that makes us feel complicit,” Shapiro said. “We lose a sense of internal safety in order to keep reporting on distressing material.”

The combination of immersive trauma and moral injury can be profound, especially combined with racist and sexist violence that has occurred throughout the pandemic.

“By the election last year, I found myself randomly crying during the day, crying between calls,” said the COVID reporter, who has since acknowledged that learning about the term helped her understand how much more difficult her job had become. “It wasn’t until I unexpectedly started crying mid-conversation with a colleague that I thought, gosh, maybe this is not normal.”

Journalism is already “a very fertile breeding ground for moral injury,” but that’s especially the case “when it can mean the difference between large numbers of people living or dying,” said Shapiro.

The psychological gravity of moral injury quickly became clear while I was reporting this story. Several reporters, even those who weren’t previously aware of the concept, described feeling like they had, at some point, failed at an impossible task: reporting clear, accurate public health information at a time when even the experts knew very little, information was rapidly changing, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was fumbling the ball.

A local journalist based in Seattle — whose coverage area included one of the first cases of COVID-19 in the US and the first confirmed death to be reported — told me that after interviewing grieving families, she began to see individual deaths as evidence of “falling short in my duties.”

Much of her job involved providing resources to the public and answering questions about the virus from readers, but “my work did nothing to prevent those deaths,” she said. “That’s the moment when it hits me that it’s a mass-casualty event and it is completely out of my control.”

Shannon Palus, a senior editor at Slate covering science (and full disclosure, my longtime friend and roommate), said one of the most professionally and emotionally challenging parts of the pandemic for her has been the fact that even the basic science kept changing so rapidly. In February 2020, that uncertainty felt particularly acute.

It’s my job to parse things for readers, and they just felt unparsable,” said Palus.

It didn’t help that relatively early on, the former president was routinely spouting misinformation about the virus and the CDC went almost completely silent, forcing reporters to take on a larger role in public health messaging.

Another health reporter at a national outlet who asked to remain anonymous told me that one of his greatest regrets is feeling like he didn’t adequately communicate in his stories “the length of time our lives would be impacted by mitigation measures.” He said that answering questions from readers online, which often involved clarifying jumbled messaging from federal authorities, made him feel like his job veered into the public relations work the CDC was failing to do.

For some reporters, the psychological toll of COVID-19 coverage also comes from facing physical harm in the course of their work. While I was safely reporting from my bedroom in Brooklyn, the Seattle-based journalist told me she was sometimes encouraged by editors to risk her safety for the sake of stories.

Near the beginning of the pandemic, she was in the field when a group of people harassed her in public when they recognized her as a reporter.

“I asked them to just stay six feet away and they would not. They got really close up in my face and were yelling, so I sort of charged at one of them to get them to step away. I also took out my alcohol sanitizer, ready to spray them in the eyes if necessary. They eventually backed off,” she said. “I had no idea the infection rate of the town, or if them being in my face and maskless was going to get me sick.”

When her boss told her she needed to stay in the field for a few more hours, she had a panic attack.

“I started crying and shaking,” she said. “I had to pull over and just sobbed.”

Every reporter I spoke to for this story recalled a moment where they realized they were no longer able to separate themselves from the subject — when the answer to a question they were reporting out would affect their personal lives.

For Apoorva Mandavilli, the renowned New York Times reporter on science and global health, it was writing about school closures with two children at home, and writing about COVID in India, where her parents live. 

In response to her reporting on the subject of child-to-child transmission, readers “told me that I’m responsible for robbing an entire generation of kids their education and responsible for ruining their mental health and that I want kids to commit suicide,” she said.

“I really hit a wall in January,“ said Mandavilli. “When the vaccines were authorized, I had this idea things were going to ease up.…I thought we were getting ready to see the end.” When the first variant news broke, igniting fears that a more contagious version of the virus might soon send the country back into chaos, she says, “it all felt very frantic again.”

“You don’t even realize how much it’s weighing on you,” said Mandavilli.

As for me, I still think about the afternoon in October when a public health expert told me he believed the nation would, within weeks, surpass 100,000 new infections per day. I conducted a handful of interviews trying to corroborate that estimate, and it was essentially unanimous. I started sobbing in my room, overwhelmed by the losses we were about to see. I could feel my brain trying to peel itself away from the information I was learning. I did not want to look directly at it. But I had to write the story anyway. I wanted to write the story.

There are ample case studies, guides, and experts on trauma reporting: the process of telling stories of extreme suffering or tragic death. When these stories involve mass shootings, terrorism, and natural disasters, most people acknowledge that they cause psychological distress for the victims, first responders, witnesses, survivors, and their loved ones. It’s perhaps less clear to those inside and outside of the news industry that this is also true for the journalists who tell the stories. But we have to name a problem in order to solve it.

Covering COVID-19 is trauma reporting.

Dr. Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology at UCLA and a clinical psychologist trained in disaster and emergency response, cited previous examples of reporters covering trauma while experiencing it themselves: New Orleans-based reporters were finding, writing, and filing stories in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, even while they were still in peril. Local reporters covering the more recent California wildfires, the Houston floods during Hurricane Harvey, or the winter storms and power outages in Texas faced the same challenge.

“We know a little bit about the experience of needing to do a job at a time when you personally are impacted,” said Mays. “You’re much more fragile during those times.”

“Some of the best journalists are the ones where you can hear, in their voice and their story, that they [understand the trauma they’re writing about],” she continued. “You have to ask yourself, does this take a toll?” As Shapiro told WNYC’s On The Media: “Journalism is a trauma-facing profession. A lot of what counts as news are the worst experiences that happen to people.”

For all reporters, Shapiro told me that there’s a particular mix of stressors that includes “all of the fears, uncertainties, stresses that every human being is dealing with right now,” like the isolation of social distancing and mourning lost loved ones. But journalists are also all dealing with the enormous pressure of needing to reinvent how we work and disseminate information during a “trauma-drenched” news cycle, said Shapiro. I would add to that mix the online harassment directed disproportionately at journalists marginalized by racism and sexism.

“For COVID reporters, there are some specific challenges I’m just beginning to understand,” said Shapiro. “You’re spending your lives immersed in sounds and images and consequences of the pandemic in a way that probably is flooding your image bank. That can make it harder to set up the kind of boundaries that we need to do our jobs.”

COVID reporters who are covering the front lines and the big-picture numbers have spent the entire pandemic “closer both to the loss, the grief, the suffering of COVID patients” as well as to “the full reality which most of us can keep at the fringes of our consciousness.” That structure, which requires proximity both to the individual human cost and the society-wide ramifications of the pandemic, increases what Shapiro called “the psychic burden” of this kind of reporting.

It took many of us a long time to discover this was even trauma reporting. I took on the beat without knowing how bad it would be or how long it would last. But even for those reporters who covered science or healthcare before January 2020, that coverage area was not previously dominated by a large-scale disaster that killed more than 500,000 people in the US and more than 3 million worldwide. Many of us felt an imperative to do the best job we could on the most important story in the world. But suddenly, we have hundreds or even thousands of reporters who’ve never done trauma reporting, realizing that they’ve been doing it for more than a year with no training, and little to no acknowledgement from newsroom leaders of the toll it takes. 

“Journalists are like therapists without the training,” said Jessi Gold, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. Therapists often experience burnout and vicarious trauma, which is distinct from burnout and is defined by the American Counseling Association as the “emotional residue” of witnessing “the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.” But Gold, like others in her field, has a toolbox for addressing it: “Somebody at least taught me how to cope.”

“[Journalists] are just thrown into really hard situations,” said Gold. “Not only have you not been trained on how to talk to someone in an active trauma, but the people who you’re talking to might not even know they’re not ready to talk about it.”

Over the past several years, it has become commonplace in journalism that “people say mean things to you online and in person and devalue your job and don’t respect you,” said Gold. “So not only are you dealing with constant hard stories that you don’t have time to process…your own personal self-worth, sense of self, and character [are] constantly attacked, and your sense of safety is constantly under attack.”

There are ways to mitigate the strain, including help from colleagues. “My editor is incredibly supportive,” said Mandavilli. “He’s actually always the one pulling me back from trying to do too much,” reminding her that it is often okay to take more time on a story if she needs breathing room.

“I felt like I’d been training for this my entire life,” she said. She had a knowledge of science, already-established sources in the industry, and plenty of experience pitching, writing stories quickly, and reading studies. Still, she described days where all she could do was sit in front of her computer monitor. “I read things and looked up things and read abstracts but I just couldn’t write,” she said — on days like that, an editor offering to extend a deadline helped enormously.

Palus, like many others, said she found solace in her therapist, in Zoom yoga, in having a boyfriend and a dog. One way she separates herself from the intensity of her work is to imagine writing about the pandemic as something akin to building chairs. “The website you work for needs a chair today. You know how to make a chair. Build the chair,” Palus said. “Try to make the chair good, but most importantly, make the chair so that someone can sit down in it at 6 PM and have it hold their weight and not give them splinters.”

She also emphasized that her boss’s positive attitude toward flexible hours — and breaks in general — had been extremely helpful. “People at the magazine are very understanding about the need to get up and go for a walk in the middle of the day, especially when outside time is so important,” said Palus. “We’ll say, ‘I’m going for a walk in the daylight’ to each other.”

But an entire industry can’t rely on the humanity of a few good editors; it must be accompanied by policies to safeguard workers, including more training to help both management and reporters understand and address the psychological burden of the work.

One editor at a national news organization told me that she hit a breaking point when she asked — weeks in advance — to use an earned PTO day for her second vaccine shot, since she was worried she’d have side effects. Her bosses told her the newsroom could not find anyone to fill in for her. She felt ill, but she worked through the shift anyway, she said.

“I don’t mind working hard, and I believe in the value of journalism,” she told me. “But there needs to be balance, and for years this industry has ignored that…[Newsroom leaders] know people are faring badly, but it seems like they only half-heartedly put in effort [to do anything about it].” 

At Slate, Palus said the newsroom had its hours cut last summer, which she called “a godsend.” 

“It was done carefully to leverage the benefits in the CARES Act, so, though we’d had our salaries cut briefly in the spring, we got topped up with money from the government,” she added. “I don’t actually know what I would have done if I had to work five days a week last summer. I was crying a lot.” 

As her roommate, I remember a moment where I walked in on her crying on the couch last summer. I had just thrown up, and I had tears streaming down my face. We were sitting there heaving with sobs — if I had to guess, in coffee-stained pajamas — when one of my Alexa’s incremental work-from-home reminders went off: “It’s lunchtime!”

When we stopped laughing at the absurdity of what had just happened, I realized Alexa didn’t know or care that we had lost our minds. Eat lunch? Are you kidding me? The world is falling apart. How are we supposed to eat a salad at a time like this? More than 500,000 people are dead, including colleagues and friends and loved ones, and we were expected to keep eating lunch? Keep pitching? Keep punching out copy?

Illustration by Ning Yang.

A phenomenally informative Harvard Business Review story about burnout from March reported that there are six main causes: unsustainable workload, perceived lack of control, insufficient rewards for effort, lack of a supportive community, lack of fairness, and mismatched values and skills.

The article, written by Jennifer Moss, points out that companies often suggest that their exhausted and grieving employees try tactics to manage the consequences of burnout, like yoga and meditation, when workplaces need higher-level interventions. “It’s an organizational problem that requires an organizational solution,” Moss wrote.

Obviously, one of those solutions is money. But it’s not even the most important one. It’s good to direct financial resources toward mental health, like reimbursements for treatment when the psychological diagnoses were caused or worsened by the work itself, but newsroom leaders must also make sure they are “recognizing resiliency, giving people hope, and helping people realize they need to take the time to become this new person they are in this new world,” said Mays. “It’s not just sending people off to get mental health treatment,” she continued, but also collectively “celebrating what is good, mourning what we have lost.”

The Dart Center, for example, offers on-site and remote consultation and educational services relevant to trauma reporting, including programs that cover the duty of managers to prepare their teams, how professionals can take care of themselves and maintain resilience, and how to conduct trauma-aware interviews without harming the subjects. Some newsrooms have done them already, but many haven’t. Meanwhile, reporters without training are still being sent out to mass shootings, to local crime scenes, to hospitals. 

Very few reporters are trained on how to conduct an interview with someone who is in the middle of a trauma. This is a necessary skill, and educating newsrooms won’t just help trauma survivors, it will also help the journalists. In the study on the 2011 Oslo terror attack, the researchers concluded that “media organizations can prevent post-crisis impairment by preparing employees for possible exposure to dilemmas during crisis‐related assignments.” This is ethical, and it benefits the journalists and produces better reporting. It should be a no-brainer.

Of course, it’s hard to make these structural changes when newsroom leaders are also underwater. As the Seattle-based local journalist said, “It has been one year since a boss has called me up just to see how I am doing,” and these informal check-ins can help relieve the burden of reporting on a crisis. As Gold said, it’s important to have “a place where people don’t feel alone with what they’re experiencing.” Otherwise, she says, workers can devolve into questioning their own reactions: “Is there something actually wrong with me? Am I the only one who can’t do the job?”

If companies simply take the time to speak to their journalists about what they need, most would find that they’re proposing many of the same ideas as experts. The Reuters Peer Network is a program in which staffers at that outlet are trained by clinicians in active listening, empathy, and self-care techniques — as well as when to refer a colleague to a professional. Several major newsrooms — including Politico and The Guardianhave added additional benefits like pandemic bonuses, additional paid time off, or mental-health-focused training for their teams. Or look at the recent activity of any newsroom union: many have been busy lobbying for more money for mental health services, fairer wages, more time off, more training, more guidance. For any media company that would claim these measures might not be economically feasible, I’d ask them to consider the long-term financial benefit of retaining top talent while keeping them healthy and happy enough to produce excellent work.

“Companies can do a lot more to help retain their journalists and keep them from burning out,” said the Seattle-based journalist. “They need hazard pay, more time off, and more employees hired in the newsroom. Keep squeezing people, and they’ll keep leaving.” 

But it’s hard to advocate for solutions to a problem that hasn’t yet been acknowledged by many media companies. Even from my perspective as a free agent who is deeply invested in one day fully reentering this industry, it is hard to imagine how to effectively lobby for these solutions without also describing the particular agony I experienced. 

That kind of vulnerability comes at a cost, like receiving hateful emails or being mocked by random men on Twitter over a flippant story in The New York Times while my colleagues defend the validity of my experiences. Still, I feel compelled to actively participate in the discourse around trauma and burnout — and what we can do about it — in order to help make sure there is a humane and sustainable industry to come back to.

While Shapiro said he’s seen “growing recognition” over the past several months about how trauma-filled journalism has become, a lot of that progress has been “driven by a younger generation of reporters who are recognizing the impacts on them, are more literate about trauma, and who have less stigma about asking for help.”

With that in mind, here’s my advice: Whether you’re a newsroom leader or a reporter or an intern — even if you feel like you’re admitting defeat — please ask for help when you need it. That’s how I found solidarity and support, and it’s how I was able to write this story, my first byline since quitting.

I’m still recovering, and I’ve got a lot more work to do. But one day, without even thinking about it — amid the exposure therapy sessions and watercolors paintings and conversations with supportive peers and nights spent cooking dinner for my parents — I started smiling again. That has to count for something.

The pandemic isn’t done yet, and journalism definitely isn’t either. Rather than telling you who to call, tell us what’s worked for you – gifs, online resources, therapist lists and hotlines, resources for organizing management AHEM – and we’ll share them with Study Hall members and on Twitter @studyhall.

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