New journalists find communities engaged with COVID-19 news, but important stories unrelated to pandemic going uncovered

Breaking: Last year was not a great one for the news business in Canada. According to the Local News Research Project, at least 38 news outlets closed between March and November alone. But while the business picture is gloomy, recently analyzed survey data found that many young journalists were able to continue doing their jobs and generally expressed positive attitudes about the results of that work.

In June, we sent a survey to 290 people who had graduated from undergraduate journalism programs at Carleton University or the University of King’s College in 2018 or 2019.  There were 122 respondents, for a response rate of 42 per cent. Respondents were asked whether the COVID-19 pandemic had had a direct impact on their job status. Fifty-three per cent indicated that there was no major impact, while 47 per cent indicated that there was an impact. 

The kinds of impact reported varied. For example, nine respondents indicated that their workplace had closed, either permanently or temporarily. Another nine reported they had lost their jobs and another nine indicated their hours had been cut back. 

Those who reported working in journalism and advertising appear to have been adversely affected at a somewhat higher rate than those who reported working in other fields. When asked what field they worked in primarily, the largest proportion reported working in journalism, followed by communications, public relations and advertising. 

Bar chart representing respondents answers to the question "What kind of work are you primarily doing?" broken down by respondents in (descending order) journalism communications, public relations, advertising and other.

For those working in journalism, just under 50 per cent reported a direct impact, compared with just under 40 per cent for those working in communications and just under 39 per cent for those working in public relations. There were only six respondents who indicated they work in advertising, and they had about the same proportion of respondents reporting an impact as those in journalism.

Chart representing responses to the question "Has the COVID-19 pandemic had a direct increase on your job status?" Of respondents working in advertising, 50% said it has had an impact and 50% said it has had no major impact; of respondents working in journalism, 49.23% said it has had an impact and 50.77% said it has had no major impact; of respondents working in communications, 39.62% said is has had an impact and 60.38% said it has had no major impact; and respondents working in public relations said 38.89% said it has had an impact and 61.11% said it has had no major impact.

The impact also appears to have been disproportionately felt by those working for newspapers, especially non-dailies.

Chart representing responses to the question "Has the COVID-19 pandemic had a direct increase on your job status?" broken down by media type. Of those working at newspapers (not daily), 66.67% said it had not had an impact and 33.33%  said it had no major impact; of those working at newspapers (daily), 60% said it had an impact and 40% said it had no major impact; of those working in television, 60% said it had an impact and 40% said it had no major impact; of those working in radio, 50% said it had an impact and 50% said it had no major impact; of those working in online media, 42.31% said it had an impact and 57.69% said it had no major impact; of those working in radio and television, 28.57% said it had an impact and 71.43% said it had no major impact; of those working at magazines, 100% said it had no major impact

This picture appears consistent with the data from the Local News Research Project.

Our survey data also suggests that for those recent graduates who continued to work, some tasks had become more difficult under pandemic conditions. While nearly half of the respondents reported that they never have to leave their homes to do their jobs, this may have created communications challenges. 

For example, nearly 57 per cent of respondents found that it was either more difficult or much more difficult than normal to interact with co-workers under pandemic conditions than it had been normally. A slightly higher proportion of respondents (46 per cent) also found it more difficult to interact with sources than those who found it about the same as normal (41 per cent). 

Chart representing respondents answers to the question "How are the following tasks during the pandemic as compared with normal" broken down by much easier, somewhat easier, neither easier nor more difficult, more difficult and much more difficult. The tasks are: interacting with co-workers, interacting with sources, verifying information, producing stories or content, finding reliable data, finding story ideas and finding sources

As for the means of communicating among co-workers, respondents indicated that email was the most common method, though other communication platforms were used frequently as well. 

Chart representing means of communication among co-workers by frequency. Types of communication in descending order of frequency are email, real-time text platform (Slack, etc), phone, live video (Skype, Zoom, Hangouts, etc), text messaging (SMS, WhatsApp, Signal, etc) and social media (Facebook Messenger, Twitter, etc)

But the data about recent journalism graduates is not totally bleak. First, as noted, a majority of respondents indicated that the pandemic had had no major impact on their job status. Of those who were working, most recent graduates also reported they were able to do their jobs while never or rarely leaving their homes. (As noted, this is not an unqualified good, depending on your work-from-home setup.)

Respondents answers to the question "How often do you need to leave your home in order to do your job?" 44.74% said never, 21.05% said rarely, 5.26% said occasionally, 5.26% said frequently and 23.68% said very frequently

More than 70 per cent of respondents also believe that the news coverage of the pandemic had helped “flatten the curve” in their communities and that they found sources were willing to talk candidly about their experiences with COVID-19 (though roughly the same percentage of respondents also thought that important stories not related to the pandemic were being missed).

Chart representing respondents answers to the question "Do you agree or disagree with the following statements about news coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic?" broken down by: Important stories not related to COVID-19 are being missed, sources are willing to talk candidly about their COVID-19 experiences, coverage of the pandemic helped "flatten the curve" in my community, Canadian news media were able to effectively visualize the COVID-19 data in useful ways, early news stories often misinterpreted the pandemic data, journalists have been too deferential to politicians, sources are difficult to find under pandemic conditions and coverage of the pandemic has been too negative.

And in general, recent graduates overwhelmingly thought that journalists have been able to do their jobs effectively during the pandemic. No respondents selected the option “not at all effectively.”

This survey data paints a mixed picture. On the one hand, many of the respondents seemed to be able to carry on working, albeit with all the challenges associated with remote work. Most respondents also expressed a positive attitude towards some of the important work that journalists continued to do even as workplaces became inaccessible. 

But many respondents also experienced reduced hours or job losses as news organizations were forced to close, either temporarily or permanently. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit many types of business hard and the already struggling news outlets, where recent graduates hope to get their first work experience, are no exception.