Wrestling with a war in your newsroom

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Welcome to the latest INMA Newsroom Initiative newsletter.

As if Ukraine, the COVID pandemic, and an industry that feels and often is precarious weren’t enough, newsrooms are dealing with the risks and fallout from the terror attacks on Israel by Hamas and the war unleashed in Gaza in retaliation.

How to tell that story is difficult enough, but how do we keep staff safe and supported? The risks are not just to the brave journalists bearing witness in the field but also staff in newsrooms, often their own homes, or in specialist services that try to vet or assess information.

This week, we look at ways to manage the duty of care to staff in times of crisis. There’s also another in the series of rather personal examples of what I consider to be worthy of the label of best practices. Let me know what you think.

Newsrooms and the duty of care to staff in a crisis

The lightning and brutal attacks on Israeli settlements by Hamas guerrillas on October 7 and the retaliation with overwhelming force into crowded Gaza has been played out in a parallel information war from all sides, and your newsrooms and staff are at risk.

Whether it is long-established rules about the language of terror (such as the BBC and many other organisations history of only using “terrorist” when attributed) or the need to view and verify harrowing still pictures and video, newsrooms are part of the battleground. Even if you don’t have your own staff in physical danger in the region, they may be at psychological — or in some cases physical risk — many miles from the Middle East.

The conflict between Israel and Hamas adds to an already stressful environment for journalists.
The conflict between Israel and Hamas adds to an already stressful environment for journalists.

The Ukraine war triggered a parallel information war with disinformation (the deliberate spread of erroneous claims) and misinformation (wrong but circulated claims), but the war between the state of Israel and the terror group Hamas, which governs Gaza, is generating a new level of reputational, physical, personal, and business risks for news organisations and staff.

Newsrooms need to think hard about their responsibilities to staff as well as audiences.

“I’ve been working in news safety since 2010 — covering ethics, safety, and mental health — and more people contacted me in the past couple of weeks concerned about the images and the distressing material they or their staff have been exposed to exposed to than at any time since the Arab uprisings of 2011,” Hannah Storm, co-founder of the journalism mental health group Headlines Network, told me in an interview.

Newsrooms have learned hard lessons over the years about safety in the field in war zones — whether that is providing the best flak jackets and communications gear or sending specialist security staff in with journalistic teams. There is no guarantee staff can be safe in dangerous environments, but most organisations at least train and equip staff to do the best they can.

Safety risks away from the frontline can be harder to pick up, especially in an era of remote working, but are no less real. Journalists and their employers are also under attack — perhaps especially in this conflict, which is so polarised between supporters of Israel’s right to defend itself and those who condemn the containment of Palestinian ambitions for statehood.

It may be possible to hold two ideas in your head at one time: that Hamas is a terror organisation dedicated to Israel’s destruction and that Palestinians have grievances. It seems nearly impossible to do that online or to represent those two ideas in news reports without being accused of bothsidesism by politicians or supporters of one side or the other — or just trolls.

Whether they are on the literal frontline or not, your staff are on the frontline.

“We find that journalists are very tired,” Hannah said. “The news cycle has been relentless and they have the sense that their industry is also precarious. They’re exhausted by the pandemic, and then by Ukraine, and there’s a kind of cumulative tiredness: job cuts, a lack of resources, always being asked to do more with less. Then a crisis like this.”

A former head of the International News Safety Institute (INSI) and the Ethical Journalism Network, Hannah has become a sought after authority on the mental health of journalists, which members of INMA’s Newsroom Initiative have told me is one of the biggest challenges.

Here are a couple of specific areas newsrooms need to watch out for in upholding their duty of care to staff — whether in an office, at home, or literally on the frontline:

  • Vicarious trauma: Constant exposure to harrowing images, video, audio, or just constant reports can contribute to stress and trauma comparable to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It can help to limit the length of work shifts handling risky material, scheduled breaks, not watching images on full screen, turning the sound off, and getting managerial support.
  • Online attacks and harassment: The BBC recently disclosed that its misinformation correspondent Marianna Spring is subjected to fully 80% of the total online harassment directed at its staff. In the latest crisis, the BBC and other organisations have been targeted by politicians, campaigners, trolls, and ordinary people for perceived bias. Hannah reckons reporters — and their bosses — have to shield themselves from the volume and tone of attacks.
  • Moral injury: It can be difficult to witness — especially day after day — the most transgressive acts and not have a sense of helplessness, which can become a sense of culpability. Newsrooms, Hannah says, need to be open to talking about mental health crises, the challenges of dealing with awful material, and, when necessary, publicly defending their work, their standards, and the importance of “bearing witness” to human tragedies.
  • Generational trauma is an academically well-understood but maybe not well-publicised phenomenon that may affect journalists at least as much as it might others. Reporters inside Gaza are often Palestinian or Arab, for example, and many work tirelessly for respected international media organisations with strong ethical policies. The same is true of journalists with Jewish backgrounds where the enduring generational trauma is well known. Staff in each and many other categories with histories of trauma are reporting in real-time on incidents decades in the making and in which they have an unmistakable (even if buried) personal stake.

Newsroom leaders need to be open to conversations around these questions. I know from my own experiences in war zones and, more importantly, supervising people in or assigning them to war zones or other scenes of crisis, that a macho attitude of ignoring the risks or toughing out the potential damage just isn’t good enough today if it ever was.

Here are some online resources that may help:

Postscript: Language wars flare up at the BBC and elsewhere over Israel-Gaza

We recently reported on what I called the “language war” that engulfed the BBC and Canada’s CBC in the early days of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

To his credit, CBC Editor-in-Chief Brodie Fenlon wrote a public statement about the origins of the CBC style not to itself describe those who may commit acts of terror as “terrorists.” It may seem arcane and an academic exercise, but I thought he explained it well to those prepared to hear it.

“Attribution of the word ‘terrorist’ has been our policy for decades — mirrored by other news organisations such as the BBC, AP, AFP, and Reuters, among many others,” Fenlon wrote in a considered statement, which also handled the difficulty of always being consistent and in working on fast-moving stories. “Our focus is to report the facts of such atrocities with accuracy, clarity, and detail; to convey the scale and scope of violent acts wherever they occur; to quote the people affected; and to convey the views of officials and experts on these events.

We bear witness. But CBC News does not itself designate specific groups as terrorists, or specific acts as terrorism, regardless of the region or the events, because these words are so loaded with meaning, politics, and emotion that they can end up being impediments to our journalism.” 

What do you think? Write to me about your policies, please, peter.bale@inma.org or come on the INMA Newsroom Initiative Slack channel and let’s talk about it.

A simple best practice in newsroom metrics you might try to apply

It can be difficult to know how to apply lessons from other newsrooms to your work. It is also all too easy for newsroom leaders to tell themselves that what works in a bigger or smaller market or a different culture may not be applicable to them.

That slightly passive-aggressive or “it won’t work here” approach is surely a critical cultural reason why some innovations fail or never get started.

In the last newsletter, I offered two examples of what I think are replicable best practice exercises that have yielded gains for the organisations which came up with them – the Financial Times and News Corp Australia.

Here’s another example, this time from The Independent.

The Independent in London was one of the first newspapers I know of to grapple boldly with a crunch many publishers are only starting to truly tackle: the terminal decline of printed newspapers. The Independent bit a very large bullet in 2016 and ceased printing.

It faced a financial crisis but has determinedly gone digital and says it is now profitable and hiring rapidly with a big U.S. expansion underway. Christian Broughton, now its chief executive officer who literally rose from the mail room to editor-in-chief and now CEO, talked about that transition in a remarkable session in a Newsroom Initiative master class.

I pulled out some of what I think are applicable lessons for others. Like the Financial Times Quality Reads metric we wrote about last week, The Independent adopted a powerful newsroom metric which drove both editorial motivations and business needs.

It created an “engagement score” using what it called APV: active days, premium article mix, and volume. You can see easily how that might feed the objective of increasing reader loyalty, serving them content that adds up to subscription objectives, while also serving advertisers.

The Independent's APV engagement score includes active days, premium article mix, and volume.
The Independent's APV engagement score includes active days, premium article mix, and volume.

What are your North Star metrics? Write to me about your policies, please peter.bale@inma.org or come on the INMA Newsroom Initiative Slack channel and let’s talk about it.

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.

This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at peter.bale@inma.org or newsroom@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

About Peter Bale

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