19th March 2021
By Hannah Storm

Brazilian journalists balance emotional toll of reporting Covid-19 with ethical need

By Hannah Storm

March 19

It’s been a year since the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic.

At the time of writing, Brazil is the second worst affected country in the world, in terms of cases and deaths, after the United States.

For our journalist colleagues there, the pandemic has brought significant pressures, but also a growing realisation that – even under attack for the work they do – the pursuit of ethical journalism is absolutely crucial in fighting the crisis.

As well as reporting on the most important story in living memory, one that has brought the health system of their vast country almost to its knees, Brazilian journalists have been verbally attacked by their country’s president Jair Bolsonaro, and faced increased physical and online harassment – in a country that has long been one of the world’s most dangerous for journalists.  In addition, they have been exposed to increased economic pressures that have threatened their jobs and journalism practice, while being forced to navigate a swathe of misinformation.

For this piece, we heard from several Brazilian journalists who shared with us their perspectives on how they have navigated the challenges of this year.

Maria Esperidião, is the Executive Manager for the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI)

We have been getting many accounts [from our colleagues] of how the pandemic has affected them either from their personal life or their career. The number of harassments in the digital environment has risen dramatically. Almost 56% of attacks online had women as a target. After one year covering the virus and putting themselves at risk, we have also noted that a new wave of attacks emerged: on March 17, a local paper from Olimpia, north of Sao Paulo, was burned in an arson attack. Investigators believe it might be retaliation because the journalist expressed opinions in favour of social distancing, during the chaos here. He also criticized Bolsonaro, referring to him as ‘genocidal’. On the other hand, we are monitoring the number of journalists blocked by the government on Twitter. To sum up, there is a clear sign of deterioration of freedom of the press and the freedom of opinion.

Maiá Menezes is a board member of  ABRAJI and deputy editor of politics at O Globo newspaper.

In 2020, Maia contracted Covid-19 and stayed at the same intensive care unit (ICU) she visited as a reporter days before becoming ill.

[The following text is a translation from Portuguese, in which some parts have been shortened for clarity]

At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Brazilian newspapers readied journalists to cover Coronavirus and its repercussions. But nobody could have imagined the scale of those repercussions and the number of cases, or the tremendous polarisation that would take place in society and in politics. And so, because this took us all by surprise at the start, there was no real strategy or plan – because of the lack of expectation that the number of cases would be as alarming as we are facing today in Brazil.

Over time, journalists faced financial pressures too because many companies adopted the provisional measure of the Bolsonaro government, which reduced both the working day and the salary. This meant a reduction to salaries and  a home-office agreement. Journalists, reporters and editors started to work harder, earning less.

There were also cases of Covid in newsrooms, some of them serious, and cases of family members of reporters who contracted it. This created a very tense atmosphere, in which mental health, from my point of view, is an essential axis.

But faced with [what was essentially]  war coverage, the mental health of our colleagues started to be treated as something secondary. Not because of the companies, but because of the speed of the news. The priority is always the news. Journalism has that essential focus. In the past year, we have held panels at ABRAJI about the need to speak about mental health in the practice of professional journalism.

In Brazil, and worldwide, we are living through a time of unprecedented coverage, that has personal repercussions. At the same time, the economic crisis that had already hit Brazil is worsening and there is no prospect of reform that will change this picture to the average or even long term.

Ours is an essential profession at that moment, precisely because information is essential. It is a highly dangerous job, because in fact we are dealing with the virus on the street: I always go out with a N95 mask, take all the precautions we have to take.

I contracted the virus, but I think it has become commonplace since it is impossible due to the overwhelming number of cases in the country, that even people who are quarantined are subject to infection.

Our profession has really been under the spotlight because we have faced questions from [Covid] deniers. Some journalists were attacked violently for telling the truth about the pandemic. Just recently, our president described Covid as “mimimi” (a Brazilian version of a “big deal”, meaning exaggeration) and said “enough crying”, and that it was ‘time to change the subject” when we reached another peak of Covid-19 cases in the country. This same president attacks those who contradict the supposed truths in which he believes.

At ABRAJI, we are concerned about the high volume of online attacks that journalists are facing and the repercussions these are having on the mental health of our colleagues. The pandemic is no longer just a matter of health: it is a matter of politics, public policies and has repercussions on the daily economy and unemployment.

I think that information is now essential for all of us so we are aware of the terrain we are treading every day. But, on the other hand, we are also living through a time that shows just how fragile information can be and how we need to protect it.

Nobody is immune to the virus and journalism companies are not immune to the country’s economic crisis.

It is a trade-off. With what we have left, we need to continue working and to show to society that only with the truth, accurate reporting, that we can move forwards to a solution, even though that solution has been slow compared with other countries, and that is the vaccine. This is the scenario that I can outline at the moment.

Luiza Bodenmuller is a strategy manager at Aos Fatos, a Brazilian independent fact-checking company.  

Over the last year, Brazilian journalists have dealt not only with incredibly traumatic coverage about the pandemic but also with the effects of a struggling business model in legacy media that led to job losses and wage cuts. A few news organisations (legacy and independent) have offered some options to their employees to tackle mental health concerns: a weekly group-call mediated by a psychologist; emotional health training; coupons for online counselling are some of the strategies that took place, but not to a large scale.

It is important to add that Brazilian journalists are covering the Covid-19 crisis (that in Brazil has reached a point where the local health system is collapsing) while being attacked by the president and his allies. From January/2020 until March 6th 2021, Bolsonaro gave 1,178 false [1]or misleading claims about the pandemic, most of them denying the gravity of the pandemic and suggesting the use of drugs that aren’t proven to be effective against Covid-19 (Data: Bolsonaro’s claims tracker – Aos Fatos).

Overall, I see that we are exhausted, sad, some of us are dealing with the grief of losing someone close, but at the same time we are more aware than ever of how important it is to tell stories about those who lost their lives during the pandemic, the government’s misguided policies and how to live and work in Brazil in 2021 bring us closer to our duty as journalists. These are hard times indeed, but to believe in the impact of journalism and in its value to society is what keeps us going.

Guilherme Valadares is a journalist researcher and emotional wellbeing teacher

The mental health of journalists in Brazil wasn’t good before the pandemic and it has been getting worse during this period. 61% of Brazilian journalists reported an increase in stress and anxiety in a research done in June of 2020, by FENAJ (National Federation of Journalists). The upside has been the fact mental health is now definitely part of the agenda. It was the theme of a roundtable in one of the biggest events for journalists, ABRAJI’s yearly congress.

Being so, major newspapers such as Folha de São Paulo are starting to take pioneering actions towards cultivating more emotionally balanced and compassionate newsrooms — offering activities such as training, talks and meditation sessions, as well as starting to review internal processes and guidelines.

After all, exhausted, depressed, anxious, overloaded and sleepless journalists narrate a world immersed in this emotional landscape.

The pandemic has accentuated this, making emotional health a necessary conversation, an issue we can no longer postpone. A healthy and compassionate journalism is necessary to tackle the complex problems we face today and in order to do it, we need healthy, balanced and compassionate journalists as well.

[1] Aos Fatos | Todas as declarações de Bolsonaro