AJC managing editor Leroy Chapman shares how the newsroom handles burnout, remote work
By: Jamila Wood
The pandemic affected every aspect of our lives, and journalists have been handed a bigger responsibility. From police brutality to two historic elections in Georgia, journalists have had to cover it all while trying to maintain their mental health, which isn’t an easy task and can lead to burnout especially while doing your job in a remote work environment.
While trying to meet the deadline of breaking news, personal problems came to the forefront for journalists as newsrooms had to change the work environment to fit a virtual world.
And The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s newsroom was no exception.
“We had to be on top of what that [COVID] meant for schools, businesses, government, government services and of course sports was a big thing. It touched every single point,” AJC managing editor Leroy Chapman said.
Newsroom burnout deals with journalists who faced issues in and out of work.
“When you talk about the issue of burnout, the pandemic by itself was a huge burn. When you add the other issues, the social justice issues and covering protests in Atlanta and protesting (across the nation) lasted a long time, this city got involved after the death of George Floyd last May,” Chapman said. “Then a week later there was the death of Rayshard Brooks. Because it was right here in Atlanta, we [the AJC] became the center of some of the protests nationally and it was a lot.”
Chapman said staff had to immediately adjust to working virtually from home. He added he saw a glimpse of their lives outside of work.
“We have people who have families. They had to work under different conditions whether they were at home,” Chapman said. “Many of them have young children, which is another complicated factor. Another thing, we had a good amount of people on staff who lived alone. We had people who worked in isolation.”
But in some cases, working virtually formed a more personable relationship with other employees. Chapman said employees would take time out of the week to connect with each other outside of work, adding the AJC gave benefits packages to employees, which included 10 free therapy sessions.
“What happens in the newsroom is that we tend to lean on each other. Unlike many workplaces, we rally and we stand in the middle of the room sometimes and give pep talks. It was tough to do that remotely, but we did some very intentional things,” Chapman said.
“One is that we met every week with a select group of people and we went around the room and decided we were going to talk about everything but the newsroom. These sharing sessions became really cathartic for a lot of people because they were able to tell things they haven’t told other people,” he continued.
Adjusting to working virtually had its difficulties and was also a learning experience for AJC staff.
“We have a lot of folks who are taking care of their kids and parents. The ones who were taking care of their parents had great difficulty. You have a demanding job and have parents who need help,” Chapman said. “We had to think about ways to lighten the load for some folks to make sure they have what they need in order to take care of both children and parents. Also, we had a rash of deaths of family members in the newsroom.”
Chapman knows at least six people who lost a parent during COVID. “That’s a club nobody wants to belong to. There was difficulty because losing your parents during a pandemic and being able to bury your parents is complicated with COVID,” he said. “Also, giving space for people to do it during a time where your job is demanding you to work even harder than you normally work. There were things we understood we had to do. You had to get involved with the lives of people, maybe a little bit more than you do in a normal circumstance.”
But like any newsroom, the AJC is going through changes — some of which are likely to come in the next three to five years. The newspaper of record has moved its office space, which is not accommodating to all employees. Additionally, Chapman said no one has a permanent office and the paper has encouraged working where the news is happening.
“The AJC is going to move from their old office to another office.
“We have an opportunity to pivot toward working in a way where we minimize space and ownership of space. We are going to have a more situational hotel setting. We come to work and we work together when we need to. We will work where the news is or work in our home,” Chapman said. “I think what that does is takes away a lot of pressure to be in the office and be present in counting.”
Chapman said the office will be used for specific task-oriented work, adding that the remote work has highlighted that staffers can still be productive at home.
“It makes the whole thing about health and distance look more manageable. We trust our people. We know they are working,” he said.
Jamila Wood is a student at Clark Atlanta University.
CNN Health Reporter Jacqueline Howard and AJC reporter Eric Stirgus talk reporting lessons learned from covering COVID-19
By Tiana Allen
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced residents into their homes over a year ago, Atlanta Journal-Constitution higher education reporter Eric Stirgus and CNN Health reporter Jacqueline Howard were among many journalist thrust into coronavirus coverage.
Last year, the two spoke with the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists about some of the things they learned while covering the pandemic when it was still very new.
As vaccines continue to rollout statewide, Stirgus and Howard speak with AABJ’s The Byline about what they’ve learned this past year and how they try to maintain self care while covering the yearlong pandemic.
Tiana Allen: Looking back from 2020, what have further findings about the pandemic taught you both?
Jacqueline Howard: A lot has changed and as time went on we saw the pandemic becoming more politicized [with masks, shut downs, and reopenings]. What I’ve learned from this is how important it is that our health officials are transparent about how COVID is spread. Regarding COVID-19 and the racial disparities, if we look to the past, we all kind of saw this coming. If we look back at the H1N1 influenza outbreak, and the studies that were done during that outbreak it showed racial disparities stating that the Black and Hispanic communities had increased numbers with H1N1. Now, if we look back to last year with COVID-19, we could have predicted the politicization of the same disparities we ran into with H1N1, the impact on public health, the need for transparency and how the public needed more of that. Moreover, we already saw the beginning signs of all the three areas that were mentioned.
Eric Stirgus: This pandemic has definitely exposed some of the issues surrounding access to care and disparities in the Black and brown communities. I was at a vaccine clinic in the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta with Morehouse School of Medicine, and the organizers were talking about some of the challenges with bridging access to care. There was literature and brochures regarding COVID-19, however most of it was not in Spanish. There weren’t mobile units going out to underserved communities or senior high-rises to get everyone tested.
These were some of the issues we faced in the beginning. This is why we saw Georgia at the bottom compared to other states when it came to testing rates. We saw Georgia and many other states were not accurately reporting data on who was getting tested and it took us weeks to figure out that Black and brown people were not even getting tested at the same rates as the general population. I looked on the [Georgia] Department of Public Health’s website, and it showed that Black residents in Georgia who’ve gotten at least one shot were at 25% as opposed to White residents who were at 33%, Asians at 58% and finally Hispanics who were at 21%. So, what I’m saying is, you’ve seen these disparities and access issues throughout this pandemic.
TA: COVID-19 has changed the way the media reports on most every topic. Jacqueline, as a health reporter, how has this affected your focus on covering other health related topics?
JH: Since we are in a public health emergency, our entire focus is on the pandemic. But before the pandemic we were covering infectious diseases, cancer, maternal health and everything in medicine. I will say that during the pandemic we’ve seen a decline in cancer screenings and an increase of severe heart conditions, which could have been prevented sooner if people would have been accessing care during the pandemic.
The pandemic has led to people being hesitant to go to the hospital or doctor’s office for regular checkups as needed. Because of this, we have seen an increase of more severe disease overall. I’ve also noticed a decline in childhood vaccinations like MMR, and parents not keeping up with their children’s pediatric appointments. Another serious decline I’ve noticed is the occurrence in flu cases and other types of respiratory illnesses. It makes sense if you look at it. We are all socially distancing and wearing masks which prevents this. It’s all very interesting to know.
TA: Eric, how has the pandemic changed your focus from covering higher education topics?
ES: Well, I’ve been juggling higher education and the pandemic, but most times the topics have intersected. If you look at when the students had to leave campus and were trying to figure out remote learning, some campuses were settling to do a pass/fail option as opposed to giving out letter grades, which brought on a lot of criticism from public universities. There were some smaller schools that required students to be on campus but they had to wear masks indoors versus the larger universities who had student housing where the COVID-19 cases went through the roof nationally. I mean, there was a big deal with online learning versus in-person learning and now there is an issue whether all students should be vaccinated before coming back to class for this fall semester.
Schools in Georgia like Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse School of Medicine, Morehouse College, and Emory University have all required students to be vaccinated, whereas public universities have decided not to have the vaccine requirements. Overall, COVID-19 has become so much a part of everything we’ve been reporting now. I’m working on a story now about how Georgia was awarded 11 million dollars to use toward providing remote mental health services to college students. There are some challenges with this as well.
Basically, COVID-19 has been a part of everything I’ve reported on in higher education from finances, with healthcare and even with educational outcomes. I’ve reported on the fact that student enrollment has declined during the pandemic. It’s all encompassing.
TA: We’re more than a year into the pandemic. Have you seen anything different in the numbers regarding communities of color, specifically the Black community, with regards to COVID-19 testing or vaccination?
ES: The numbers have increased but there is still a strong number of Black people who have questions about the vaccine. I have some personal friends who still ask questions. The number one inquiry is about how quickly these vaccines were developed and how were they able to develop it so quickly. I’m even hearing that people are starting to change the word “questioning” to “hesitancy” because if they question it, it might bring a negative connotation to some folks. There are a ton of other problems in access to care from getting the vaccine to the elderly to those who have trouble with learning technology and those who are not able to get a ride to the testing or vaccination facilities.
Moreover, there are outstanding questions about the vaccination process itself, and for many Black people this includes conversations around the Tuskegee Experiment or Henrietta Lacks, which brings a lot of distrust. Secondly, there hasn’t been enough doses given to primary care physicians. The numbers overall have improved with Black people but still well below white Georgians. However, there’s been a huge campaign with celebrities touting getting the vaccine. Even Morehouse School of Medicine had several civil rights leaders come to get the vaccine. There’s been a push to get the Black community onboard. This has helped somewhat but there are still some logistical barriers.
JH: As Eric stated, we’ve seen an increase in the data regarding the Black community receiving the vaccine, but there still is a gap. With that, there will be a push to get vaccines into primary care physicians offices because studies suggest that if your own doctor recommends and can administer the vaccine, then there is a greater trust with who receives the vaccine.
I also think we have to realize that the disparities in getting the vaccines are layered. Access is one thing, but also there are those who can’t take off work and make time to go get the vaccine, even further taking the time to get two doses. As you see, there are a lot of factors to this.
Yes, vaccine questioning exists, it also needs to be addressed, and there are health officials and those in public health who are addressing it. However, the disparity in vaccinations is a bigger issue in the communities that need them the most. We’ve seen some cases in NY where people of wealthier communities were traveling to Queens in order to get the vaccine. This was taking away from the people in that community who needed it the most. This is a part of the greater discussion.
TA: As the CDC releases new pandemic guidelines, how often do they conflict with some state requirements.
JH: The CDC did state that if you’ve received both doses of the vaccine and it’s been two weeks since completion, you no longer have to wear a mask outdoors. This guideline was put in place in order to show people that if you’ve followed the precautions, your risk of contraction has now decreased and so the more stringent previous precautions are now a little more lax. This was also to showcase a reason to get the vaccine.
There has also been data showing that the vaccine has been working and we’ve seen a decline in COVID-19 deaths as well as hospitalizations among people who have received the vaccine. However there has been some questioning regarding this guidance. Comedian and host of The Daily Show Trevor Noah asked in one of his commentaries, if you are fully vaccinated then why can’t you go everywhere without a mask? Health officials replied that not enough people are vaccinated yet. Even if you are vaccinated and someone else isn’t, there is still a risk of it spreading indoors. We really can’t go back to “normal” until more people get the vaccine. We have to encourage people to get it.
ES: It goes back to the political divide again. There are some states that are conservative, but you also have sports teams that they are filling all seats at their games, and colleges allowed full capacity at commencement ceremonies. So, I think there is this eagerness to get back to the world we were in before COVID-19, and the criticism surrounding the mask mandates are still working to be resolved. The data is that the vaccines have been effective.
TA: What are you doing as journalists to make sure the information you are reporting is correct, and how are you fact checking information with new data frequently released?
Eric: I’m lucky to have been working with many reporters that follow these stories. I’ve had many offerings to read articles from my editor and other team members that are also covering the pandemic. So, we’ve all been holding each other accountable. It’s also important to have many different sources.
Universities are always a good source to have because they have experts to talk to about the vaccine. Sometimes I even look at Jacqueline’s work and see what she’s put out. Also, the federal government, particularly the Biden Administration has been a lot more aggressive with providing updates to the media by briefing us three times per week to answer some of the questions we may have. I think that’s been beneficial as well.
JH: I want to agree with Eric, as we’ve seen an increase in briefings from the White House and Biden administration is helpful. As far as getting the right side of the story out, I see it as being no different from any other news story in journalism. It’s the basics, having those sources, checking in with them weekly about any new findings, that’s what we do for any topic. With this pandemic, we all had to return to the basics in order to make sure we get good journalism out there.
On my end at CNN, there has been a lot more collaboration between teams, task forces and beats who have made extra effort to work together to cover pandemic related stories with care and accuracy, not only this but with humanity. There is extra focus on getting the story right, but we can’t forget that this is something that is impacting human lives. We need more empathy in covering this. It’s just as important to keep ethics in mind as well.
ES: That’s a great point about empathy and telling the human side of this pandemic. Yes, this is a story about science but most importantly, it’s a story about people.
TA: Speaking of empathy, how hard has it been to keep your opinion out of the story if you are triggered or emotionally overwhelmed?
ES: I’d say, it’s important to stick to the facts as with all journalism. I’ve had family members and friends who tested positive for COVID-19 or have even died, as well as former colleagues. It is difficult on a personal level to some degree, but you have to be a professional. Our newsroom has been really great about taking time for us to talk about some of the things we’ve been dealing with and to take some time off.
It’s hard, but I take personal time off when I can. We also have group Zoom calls with colleagues. Not for anything in particular, but the opportunity for all of us to just see each other and interact from time to time. These things are helpful to have that type of normalcy again. It also helps us tell our stories better without being as stressed.
JH: We have to approach each story with objectivity and fairness. On the humanity aspect, sometimes there is a need to have a moral compass. For instance, we saw a rise of racism in the pandemic. There are no two sides to that, you can’t give a racist viewpoint to the story because there is only one side to report which is hate.
It’s also important to think about as journalists, we all have a moral compass. You also have to be careful when you are talking about telling two sides when you’re trying to be objective. There is only right and wrong, and hate is hate. The same applies when covering the pandemic. As with many other topics, you keep your personal views out of it. When you see a moral issue or misinformation, or even addressing conspiracy theories, it’s our job as journalists to say, “No. Here are the facts.” No, you cannot kill the coronavirus by drinking bleach or alcohol.
It’s important to correct these myths. Yes, keep your personal viewpoint out of it, but also don’t shy away from debunking misinformation and issues you see come up such as hate or racism. It’s our job as journalists to address this for the public and let them know what’s really happening.
TA: Journalists are providing so much information on a regular basis. How do you make room for self-care?
Jacqueline: One way is collaborating with your team, and two is taking time off for self-care. There has been a huge focus at CNN regarding mental health. I’m grateful for this effort because it impacts how we do our work. My colleagues and I have been talking about how the rise in police violence has taken a toll on journalists of color.
One personal hurdle I’ve had to overcome is what I remember hearing from my childhood: “You always have to work twice as hard to get the same as what everyone else is getting.” Because I heard that growing up, I found it hard to take time off. I hope this new focus on mental health and self-care helps to take us out of that mindset because I had to do it. I have to remind myself that no one’s going to look at me a certain way if I take time off. It’s OK to do this. Journalists of color can really benefit from focusing on self-care.
ES: In general, you can’t do your work at your best if you are stressed out or exhausted. Sometimes you do need to take time to relax and spend time with your family or friends. When you can do that, then you can work much better. I’m glad to see NABJ raising awareness about mental health in journalism and the workshops they’ve had surrounding self-care in addition to the fact that they continue to advocate for us in news rooms to make sure that we are taken care of.
I’ve covered some protests, and I remember being out there having to wear masks in the heat in addition to covering the pandemic while being emotional and having to cover all this. I’m hoping that newsrooms will continue to be aware of mental health and provide more resources where we can have these moments to have self-care.
Tiana Allen is a behavioral therapist and writer for The Byline. This is her first article with the publication.
This issue of The Byline was edited by Tianna Faulkner and Raisa Habersham.