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Uncertainty means covering crisis hits hard, warns journalism researcher

Published:07 May 2020

Journalist and researcher Amantha Perera fears reporters covering the COVID-19 crisis could suffer trauma.

Reporting for years on a bloody civil war, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that devastated his home country of Sri Lanka and even the brutal assassination of a close colleague, journalist Amantha Perera didn’t realise how witnessing daily trauma was affecting him.

Now at CQUniversity researching the risks of online trauma for journalists, Mr Perera fears the COVID-19 crisis poses the same threat for reporters today.

While less immediately confronting, Mr Perera says community-wide stress and uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic means that journalists are constantly at the frontline.

“Traditionally when journalists work, even if they’re covering a war or disaster, they go and then come back home, and the shift in location creates a certain level of security,” he explained.

“Coronavirus means there is no safe place away from the front line – they’re absorbing the conflict, and the potential trauma, all the time.”

For the past decade, Mr Perera has been working to adapt trauma-literate journalism to his work, and support other journalists through workshops and education with the Dart Centre Asia Pacific.

In a recent article for US science news platform Mongabay, the researcher said the digital focus of coronavirus coverage added challenges for journalists.

In a personal survey of journalists, Mr Perera recently asked journalists about their work habits online.

“What I found was that more than 80 per cent said their main source of information is now the web, rather than human contacts, and most journalists are spending more than six hours online doing their work.”

“That’s only getting worse as journalists are working from home, locked down, and it’s having a huge impact on the type of information that is included in news coverage, and on the personal lives of the journalists as well.”

“Because there was very little time for newsrooms to prepare when workers shifted to their homes, journalists did not have safeguards in place to ensure they didn’t just work around the clock.”

The crisis has put Mr Perera’s own planned research into uncertainty, too.

The Master of Arts student was meant to be investigating online trauma risks for journalists in the Philippines, but will now pivot his research project to include COVID-19 crisis impacts.

He’s also been contributing to training webinars for journalists, to canvas the risks of trauma from coronavirus coverage.

While he’s excited by the opportunity, he fears traumatic months of the COVID-19 crisis are already taking a toll on journalists, and the community more broadly.

“As a young journalist, I dived in to cover really tough situations without any kind of awareness of how trauma could impact me,” Mr Perera said.

“More than ever, the world needs journalists who can cover difficult and confronting stories, and we need to be able to support them to stay safe as they do.”

Mr Perera's research is supported by a CQUniversity International Excellence Research Scholarship, through the Creative Arts Research Training Academy (CARTA).