Thursday, September 03, 2020

Rural journalists struggle with stress of pandemic; one asks, 'What is the value of my work if people don't want to listen?'

"As rural communities grapple with the covid-19 pandemic, their local newspapers work to keep them informed. But that work may be taking its toll on their mental and emotional health," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "A recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Toronto found that more than two-thirds of journalists they surveyed reported being emotionally and mentally affected by covering the pandemic."

Ashley Spinks (photo submitted
to The Daily Yonder)
Even before the pandemic, rural journalists were often stretched thin, working nights and weekends to keep their communities covered. The pandemic has added even more stressors. That's the case for Ashley Spinks, editor and sole reporter at the Floyd Press, a weekly in a Virginia town of about 500, Carey writes.

"News turned from the pandemic to the resulting indirect impact it was having on her community. Events were cancelled. Mask debates flared up. School re-openings were hashed out by officials. Government meetings went online," Carey reports. Meanwhile, "The pandemic and government actions to halt covid-19’s spread caused division in her community. Community members lashed out at her online. Small businesses, closed during shutdowns, couldn’t advertise, which caused financial strain at the paper. A spike in cases overnight led her to cancel plans for her October wedding."

The spike brought all of the emotional and mental strain of the past six months to a point for Spinks: "That’s when it came home to roost for me. Our job is to get information to people with good actionable data," Spinks told Carey. "Either people weren’t reading it, or they were ignoring it."

Spinks told Carey the stress caused a "crisis of faith in me – what is the value of my work if people don’t want to listen to it? I would say by nature, I’m anxious. But this has been more depression. I just have this deep sadness at the way we’re treating each other. Some of the commentary I get on my stories and the way people talk to each other at public meetings. … I feel really disheartened and disappointed in my small town. Small towns are not supposed to be like this."

Mike Buffington (photo provided)
Mike Buffington, editor of the Jackson Herald in Jefferson, Ga., said the pandemic was only one reason for stress among rural journalists. "I think even before the virus there was a kind of this atmosphere of doom and gloom (because of cutbacks and lay-offs in newsrooms) across the industry," he told Carey. "And then you have people coming up to you saying 'Well, I saw this on Facebook. I get my news from Facebook now.' And then, of course, the political attacks on the news media where the media gets blamed for all the political and cultural ills in the country. So, I think a lot of that was already in the atmosphere. And then the virus hit."

Buffington, 61, said some of his younger colleagues who haven't been through recessions and other downturns may be struggling more. "But I’ve been through stuff and recessions and downturns before, so I’m a little more confident that while this is pretty bad, we’ll find a way to survive," he told Carey.

Brad Martin (photo provided to Yonder)
Brad Martin, editor and reporter for the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tenn., says he's been working alone for 34 years, and is used to the stress of not having colleagues to talk to or finding enough news to fill the paper for the county of 25,000, Carey reports.

Martin doesn't feel anxiety or depression, but says he's feeling some increased pressure in trying to adequately cover the complicated, quickly changing story. "This is definitely keeping me on my toes," he told Carey. "Everything is a little more complex. With schools talking about re-opening, the questions were 'Can we open?' 'Should we open?' and 'How do we open?' They came up with three different plans. Just keeping up with all those details was the hard part."

Marcia Martinek
The pandemic hit just as Marcia Martinek, of the Herald Democrat of Leadville, Colo., was shifting from editor to editor emerita and getting a new editor started. "But when the pandemic started, she stepped back in to help," Carey reports. "All but one team member began to work from home. Phone calls, emails and Zoom sessions took over face-to-face meetings. To cope, the staff of the newspaper began to gather in a small group at one of their homes for happy hour and margaritas.

“I think it really made a difference, just to have that human contact,” Martinek told Carey. “When we were all meeting together, we were a team. And we’ve always been a team. It was just so nice to be able to talk to someone. I think that did help me and other people in the office.”

Psychologist Tyler Arvig recommends that rural reporters try to set more work-life boundaries and try to schedule time to decompress, Carey reports.

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