Journalists in Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela face invisible risk factors in terms of their mental health, according to researcher

An investigation into journalists’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals that professionals from Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru present risks of somatization, anxiety, insomnia and depression.

man smiling with arms folded

Psychologist Byron Fernando Bustamante is the principal researcher of an investigation into the state of mental health of journalists from Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Website of UTPL)

“At this moment, in Latin America, journalism is a risky profession for the mental health of those who practice it,” Byron Fernando Bustamante, psychologist and principal researcher of the investigation, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

Bustamante’s study was led by the Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja (UTPL) in Ecuador, with support from UNESCO.

The investigation, which included data collection during 2022 and a total of 315 journalists surveyed from the three countries, yielded worrying data.

In Peru, 64% of the journalists surveyed were at risk of anxiety and insomnia. In Ecuador, it was 61% and in Venezuela, 47%.

Peruvian journalists again led in terms of somatization, defined as the “conversion of a mental state into physical symptoms.” Forty-seven percent of journalists in the Andean country were at risk of it with 42% in both Ecuador and Venezuela.

In Peru, again, 28% of journalists surveyed said they suffered from depression, with 21% for Ecuador and 11% for Venezuela.

And finally, 27% of Peruvian journalists surveyed said they were at risk of suicide, with 19% for Ecuador and 10% for Venezuela.

In turn, low personal fulfillment, emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (feeling detached from yourself, your mind or body,) post-traumatic stress, stress due to COVID-19 were detected in the journalists.

According to Bustamante, the reason why Peru leads the largest number of journalists surveyed with these symptoms is that, in 2022, this country not only went through the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a political and institutional crisis crowned with the dismissal of then-president Pedro Castillo in December 2022.

To carry out the research, UTPL partnered with the journalistic organizations Fundamedios of Ecuador, the Press and Society Institute Peru and Mediánalisis of Venezuela. With the aim of sparking debate and reflection on the mental health of journalists, they also held webinars, talks, self-care workshops, and created content for social networks.

​​A risky job for the mental health of journalists

journalist holding COVID vaccine“Historically, Latin American journalists have covered critical situations, such as: natural disasters, social uprisings, wars and, recently, the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the analysis published by UTPL researchers. Therefore, when these events occur in their countries, journalists activate just like firefighters, police, health personnel and armed forces, but with the purpose of documenting what is happening and providing information necessary to confront the situation.

In 2021, while the UTPL research team, led by Bustamante, was studying “the risk groups on the front lines” during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ecuador, they noticed that there was a group that wasn’t very visible: the journalists.

“Journalism is not talked about as a profession that poses a risk to the mental health of journalists,” Bustamante said. “This is a profession with psychosocial risk factors that are not made visible.”

According to the researcher, this occurs because in journalism one "works against time," referring to the deadlines. And he added: “It’s unlike what happens with doctors or nurses, who have a system that historically protects them. Not in journalism, if you don't do a job in the time you have to do it, they look for another journalist to do it. That in the long run makes a journalist vulnerable.”

Another factor that makes journalists vulnerable, according to the researcher, is being exposed to the “crónica roja,” which usually involves coverage of deaths, accidents and natural disasters.

Regarding the state of mental health of journalists in Latin America, in general, “media are not worried about it, and they’re really not making it visible. Neither do the associations or organizations that protect the rights of journalists. And the social insurance of journalists in most countries does not cover mental health,” the researcher added.

What's more, in the UTPL investigation, they investigated the training that the journalists surveyed received from the media outlets where they work: coverage in the context of risk, characteristics of COVID-19, biosafety protocols and mental health prevention.

“In terms of mental health, we pay the least attention to prevention,” Bustamante added. The analysis showed that more than 80% of the journalists surveyed in the three countries have not been trained in that area.

In this sense, the researcher highlighted the data that, according to his criteria, best shows the vulnerability of journalists.

In Ecuador (Venezuela and Peru had similar numbers), 42% of the journalists surveyed answered that if the psychological therapy session costs them even one dollar they would not be able to access it.

In these countries, journalists have great barriers to accessing mental health services, which worsens their situation. That is why Bustamante explained: “When these problems are not attended to in time, it is not that they are reduced, but that people get tougher. There are people who really need to be treated.”

The media context in Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador

Since 2020, Bustamante has been investigating journalists as a risk group in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ecuador. In 2021, he decided to expand the research to Venezuela and Peru.

According to the researcher, the three countries are comparable because they present different degrees of social conflict and political crisis. And, in their own ways, each of them have media, and journalism as a profession, that have gone through a critical situation since the pandemic.

Journalist holding camera with a mask hanging from itAnalysis from the UTPL investigation explains that in Ecuador, during the pandemic, the economic complications of media companies worsened and media outlets were closed, resulting in hundreds of journalists being fired. They also said that at least nine newspapers stopped circulating in their printed versions and two radio stations went off the air.

In the case of Peru, the analysis explained that this was the third country in the world with the highest number of journalists who died during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of them lost their lives in the exercise of their profession. In the first 200 days of the pandemic, at least 500 media journalists were laid off. The president of the Association of Journalists of Peru told LJR in July 2023 that the country was going through a crisis of confidence toward the media.

In the published analysis it is clear that in Venezuela the exercise of journalism has been very challenging since the beginning of the 21st century. There exists what they call in the analysis the “communication hegemony” imposed by the government of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013), which led to the blocking of hundreds of private channels and the persecution of public ones. At the same time, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are no numbers that allow us to indicate with certainty how the virus affected journalists.

Journalists and mental health

Woman smiling at camera

Peruvian journalist Elizabeth Salazar told LJR that during the pandemic she was saturated with information so she had less “mental concentration to be able to carry out her work routine.” (Photo credit: Elizabeth Salazar)

“We have covered political crises, natural disasters, organized crime, but this time we were faced with something that as journalists we could not even get close to an answer or clear data,” Elizabeth Salazar told LJR about how she faced the pandemic. Salazar is a Peruvian journalist who specializes in gender and inequality, and at that time she worked at the digital media outlet Ojo Público.

In addition to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Salazar explained that at that time she was overloaded with information: “I watched all the news, social networks, and read the latest papers that came out. That is why I had less mental concentration to be able to carry out my work routine.”

The Peruvian journalist said that there came a point where she felt “too involved with some stories,” making it difficult for her to distance herself. “It wasn't something that happened to someone else, this time it happened to all of us,” she added.

One of the aspects that most affected Salazar during the pandemic, and unlike other crises that she has covered journalistically, was the fact of not having a “space for socialization due to restrictions.” For her, this would have been key to releasing anguish and tension.

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Venezuelan journalist Indira Rojas said that during the pandemic the communication of the team of the outlet where she works deteriorated and that affected her mental health (Photo credit: Indira Rojas)

Indira Rojas, a Venezuelan journalist at news outlet Prodavinci, told LJR that she also felt the lack of spaces for socialization. Rojas explained that by not having a meeting space in the office, and starting to work from home, team communication deteriorated.

“We were not prepared to assume assertive remote communication. That caused me a lot of anxiety. It was very distressing to need an immediate response from the boss or the designer and they couldn't give it to you because they were doing other things,” the Venezuelan journalist said. And she said that this was fixed as the team returned to the office, but it took a long time.

From Ecuador, Ana Acosta, co-founder and general editor of Wambra, had similar feelings. Prior to the pandemic, her team had a strong presence in the streets and in cities in the interior of the country, but with the pandemic they had to adapt their work exclusively to the internet and with this they lost radio programs and community journalists who, due to connectivity problems could not access the digital areas of their work.

Woman arms folded smiling at camera

Ecuadorian journalist Ana Acosta told LJR that during the pandemic, the Wambra team never stopped working so they did not take care of their mental health. (Photo credit: Ana Acosta)

“As for the team, it affected us a lot, despite the conditions we never stopped working,” Acosta added.

Francis Peña is a freelance journalist in Venezuela, but before that she worked in the newsrooms of El Estímulo and Prodavinci covering politics. In an interview with LJR, she said that the COVID-19 pandemic affected her journalistic work with respect to her mental health.

“What the pandemic helped me with the most was to get out of working in daily journalism and start working in long-form, which allowed me to explore other rhythms of doing journalism,” Peña said. Also “I began trying to not have this sense of urgency that I always had, that something is happening and I run out to investigate and interview many people.”

Like the Ecuadoran researcher Bustamante, the Venezuelan journalist said that in media or among journalists there is no talk about the impact that the exercise of the profession has on mental health. For that, she created the newsletter Una jeva normal, which she promotes as a safe space to talk about mental health from her experience as a journalist.

Influencing public policy for the protection of journalists

According to Bustamante, with the UTPL research, in addition to raising awareness about the role of journalists in humanitarian crises and how the practice of journalism affects their mental health, its ultimate goal is to influence public policy for mental health prevention for journalists.

“It is important that preventive training for self-care in mental health be promoted in the media, universities and entities related to journalism,” the researcher said.

But also, he called for creating psychological support processes for professionals who present the symptoms described in the research in the event that they affect their daily life.

He also recommended implementing permanent training so that journalists can face risky situations; that the training be covered by the media or by public organizations free of charge; and increasing access to mental health services for journalists working in adverse situations.

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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