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The technology journalists need in the COVID-19 era

ICFJ-Tow Center Journalism and the Pandemic Project
ICFJ-Tow Center Journalism and the Pandemic Project

Among the many repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an acceleration of upheaval in the news business. Journalists around the world are struggling with a new set of challenges in how they report the news, interact with and protect sources, disentangle disinformation, and guard their physical and emotional well-being. 

To understand the current state of journalism in the COVID-19-era, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University recently surveyed more than 1,400 English-speaking journalists in 125 countries. The results paint a dire picture, but they also suggest a way forward. One of the most important is newsroom technological innovation and training. 

In this interview with Sourcefabric, ICFJ-Tow Center study co-author Dr. Julie Posetti explains.

Dr. Julie Posetti

Dr. Julie Posetti

What are the major findings of the survey?

There are three main findings in terms of impact. The first is that 70% of our respondents rated the psychological and emotional impacts of working through the crisis and reporting on COVID-19 as the most difficult aspect of their jobs. That figure directly relates to their work, and it was the top-rated impact – even above financial hardship. This is the first large-scale survey to put meat – in the form of data – on assumptions about this being a mental health crisis for journalism.

One of the reasons covering COVID-19  is so hard is increased time spent on screens, and increased time spent in social media and online communities, where, as we know from other research, online violence and toxicity is a serious problem. That's also reflected in the data. For example,, 20% of our respondents said online harassment is much worse now than it was before.

It's also really important to note that part of this phenomenon is that journalists are constantly discussing difficult human experiences with sources and interviewees, frequently with people who have suffered themselves, certainly with people who are treating those who are suffering intensely. This is potentially traumatising and compounded by vicarious trauma – the pattern of psychological impacts flowing from online exposure to trauma. I think these are significant and important findings that we need to take very seriously and respond to.

In line with this is the series of findings around journalists being exposed to disinformation, which is taking on new importance in the context of work being done increasingly in an online environment. Journalists are struggling to surface facts from a cesspit of disinformation.

All told, this paints a picture that is extremely challenging for contemporary journalism, because some of the biggest findings are, in fact, in the areas of journalism's intersection with technology.

Let’s dig into that for a moment – technology's role in this crisis. A very high percentage of your respondents said that they desperately need training on new technologies to adequately cover the pandemic. Explain that.

There are two things at play here. One is that we have been too fixated on providing new technology [to journalists], rather than enabling an environment in newsrooms where journalism-led digital transformation can occur. In other words, I think we've been “captured” by the platforms and certain special interests when it comes to technology platforms. This is something that was at the core of work that I've done for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, where I was a Senior Research Fellow leading the Journalism Innovation Project. My conclusion was that we have been in this perpetual state of transformation, innovation, and change for two decades now. Many of the people that I interviewed were editors, CEOs, product people, and journalists, and they were all exhausted from the constant change. Not because they felt that it was unnecessary or were opposed to transformation. Rather, they felt like it was akin to banging their head against a wall. At the core was a fundamental failure to move away from the sort of “shiny things obsession” to something that's more survivable and sustainable.

To me that underpins some of what we're seeing here, in this ICFJ-Tow Center survey, which is that people are saying that they need specific training on remote technologies for reporting and publishing. That suggests journalism has a problem with the culture of innovation and technological transformation, which leads to lessons being repeated over and over and over again, instead of fostering an ability to move according to need.

So, in your view, journalism is being led by technology as opposed to the other way around?

Exactly. Journalism by and large has not been equipped to develop its own technological solutions to problems in real time. That leads to this idea of what I call ‘platform capture’, when it comes to social media, for example. This is something that Maria Ressa and colleagues at Rappler are trying to upend by developing their own editorially-led, technology solutions to integrate online communities and publishing. But in many news organisations, there is still more work to be done in the area of capability building among reporters in parallel. In fact, for 67% of respondents, the second-highest reported need after financial support, was for training on technologies to support remote reporting and publishing. This need was of equal rank to the need for training on advanced verification and fact checking techniques, and one percentage point higher than the need for training on science and health reporting.

Due to economic challenges brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, organisations that were reliant on old technology have had to innovate in real-time. How is this affecting newsrooms and journalists? 

At the beginning of this crisis we had a lot of people saying there was a silver lining, that this crisis is not necessarily all bad, because it would force people and organisations to speed up their technological adaptation. There is certainly evidence of the ingenuity of necessity in play as news organisations adapt to socially-distanced reporting, for example. But there's still the fundamentally important need simply to survive - economically and physically. As time goes by we can start looking at what we learned and perhaps, in the sense of digital transformation, apply those lessons. But at the moment, journalists need support to get through this. We have to accept that there may be long-term consequences of ripping the ‘adaptation Band-Aid’ off too quickly – especially when you consider our Journalism and the Pandemic Project first findings about burnout and mental health. 

Given all of these changes, what does the future of reporting, and investigative reporting in particular, look like? Is the era of dimly lit carparks and information drop sites a la Watergate over?

Well, now you’ve triggered my peak nerd mode, because my PhD was on risks to confidential source protection in the digital age. Post-Edward Snowden, we've learned all manner of things about the importance of more secure forms of online communication and the need to retreat to analogue-era, physical methods of source contact. For instance, this is the golden age of investigative journalism, where you can have John Doe transport the biggest data dump in history on a USB, and even transmit it via secure-drop, using the fundamentally important tools of anonymisation and encryption, and to demand the same of the reporters. That was the Panama Papers. So, we're in a new era already.

Then we arrived at COVID-19. And although we [ICFJ-Tow Center] haven't reported on this data yet, there are some pretty alarming trends we can identify from our study with regards to the lack of due consideration for the security of tools for conversations with sources who may be at risk.

What we can tell from the data we've already analysed is that journalists are reporting that many of their sources are concerned. For instance, we had 48% of journalists saying that their sources were more reluctant to talk during COVID-19 because of fear of exposure, fear of economic repercussions, or physical reprisal. Source-chilling is real, and it’s increasingly worrying in the context of COVID-19.

In parallel, there's been a crackdown on whistleblowers, particularly within the health, medical and government sectors, to try and avoid investigative reporting that might call into question processes or government responses around the pandemic.

I think what it tells us is that we need to be more cautious, we need to remember the lessons learned around the need to better defend our sources through either much more secure digital communication, or that in combination with physical source interaction. Unfortunately, in a pandemic, you can't really retreat to those face-to-face  dark carpark kind of source conversations.  And that makes it more important than ever to consider risks created by contacting sources through insecure digital means, despite the convenience of new digital tools.

Perhaps journalists are not fully aware of the risks of insecure communication technologies because news organisations have not traditionally invested in computer scientists or in security experts with appropriate training?

Well, it's partly that, but I also think it's about culture. In my experience as a journalist and digital editorial capability lead in Australia, even in a well-resourced, large news organisation, there was a complete disconnect between the people charged with the security and safety of journalists, and those in charge of technology. The IT crowd did not have a clue about the daily practice of journalism; they appeared to be there simply to safeguard the websites against hacking. And those in charge of journalists’ physical security were unaware of the interlinked digital security issues. There was no integration, no holistic approach to journalism safety in the sense of there being mandatory digital security training for journalists about how to deal securely with sources, or what to do if you experienced online harassment. 

That is starting to change, but it's not changing quickly enough.

It wasn't all bad news in the survey. In fact, 43% of respondents said they felt audience trust in their journalism had increased, at least during the first wave of the pandemic. What does this say about the health of the industry?

It reflects what we've known historically about the way audiences turn to reliable trusted news sources in times of crisis. But the fact that these journalists, who are reporting all of these negative experiences, and who are really concerned about the disinformation crisis, and are under attack and so on, are also seeing increased positivity in their audiences is encouraging. I think the perception of trust is increasing because actual trust is increasing. And that’s happening because this is a shared crisis. It's an experience of shared suffering and an experience of shared problem solving. What our respondents are reporting is a sense of deepening loyalty from audiences that comes from recognising that journalists are struggling against a lot of obstacles, enduring a lot of risk in terms of their physical safety, working extremely hard, and then delivering information that is designed to help the average person safely navigate a pandemic.

The other positive thing is the increased sense of mission that goes with this. Despite all of those negative impacts of the pandemic, here we are, with over  60% of respondents saying they have an increased sense of the importance of journalism as a result of this crisis. That's something to be quite professionally proud of.