“We were talking about putting myself out of harm’s way”: journalists report their experience of the pandemic

From France to Quebec via Switzerland and Belgium, we have given the floor to health journalists and scientists: they share their experience of the health crisis, which shows how the news front has evolved during the covid.

Covid-19 disease has taken them to the heart of the hot news: for more than two years, science journalists – specializing in health and science – have been busy following the pandemic in all its aspects. From epidemiology to virology to public health or fluid mechanics, they are on all fronts.

Between a characterized exhaustion and a passion that does not dry out completely, they tell Numerama their unique experience during this crisis.

March 2020, the covid falls through the newsrooms with its uncertainties

As of March 2020, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has already infected part of the world, with Europe and Quebec preparing to confine its population. In French-language newsrooms as elsewhere, journalists specializing in health and science are more or less prepared to cover the news that will occupy the front page for months and months. In this particular context, preparation goes beyond professionalism or skills: personal stories intertwine with collective history.

“Suddenly, my subjects were becoming hot topics and science was becoming very important! »

Olivier Monod

In February-March 2020, I was on paternity leave. “says Olivier Monod, science journalist at Release. “ I had to go back to the office on the day of confinement. Instead, I resumed telecommuting. So it was my turn to see how it fit in with what I was already doing. I chose to follow what had to do with epidemiology and vaccines because there was a shortage at this level.. “And the recovery was intense, to say the least.” Not only were there some difficulties coordinating, but all of a sudden my subjects were becoming hot topics and science was starting to become very important! In terms of pace and workload, my habits have changed drastically. »

Denfert-Rochereau metro station, deserted, in the middle of the spring of 2020. // Source: L.Genet

For Johanne Montay, editorial director of science, health and innovation at the RTBF (Belgian Radio-Television of the French Community), the arrival of the covid was a kind of baptism of fire. ” After years as a political editor, I had just arrived at my place in the health and science department when the pandemic broke out. she recalls. I discovered the subject while discovering a certain ability to understand the scientific articles I read. I have worked hard to get into the subject. »

For his part, Jean-François Cliche, in the Ground (a newspaper distributed digitally from Monday to Saturday and published on paper on Saturdays in Quebec), reports how the “covid issue” led to a net increase in work. “ Science has never been a bad relationship with the Sun. However, the column I do twice a week to answer questions from readers was very quickly literally overwhelmed! It was a lot of work, despite having to write from home with the kids to watch! For the journalist, one of the great difficulties, from the beginning, was ” treat areas of uncertainty even greater than usual. “He’s chasing:” The media often hides what they don’t know. Now, it was very important to say what we knew and what we did not know. »

For the newsrooms, the organization was a little less altered. At Heidi.news in Switzerland, Annick Chevillot, deputy editor-in-chief and head of Health & Food Feed, was already on the starting blocks: ” We have been following the epidemic since January 2020. From the first cases in Italy and Switzerland, we understood that the situation was going to get more complicated. » The fact is that Heidi.News is a medium that deals mainly with science and health, so “ we didn’t have to reorganize and there was no panic in the newsroom. In addition, we were equipped to conduct medical and scientific follow-up and to keep in touch with experts. We just went into monothematic mode. »

When the news hits the intimate

Also, the Covid-19 pandemic is not news like any other as it has affected everyone’s day to day life, and not just to taste the joys of telecommuting. ” A state of wonder had set in over the population Annick Chevillot recalls. ” Emotionally, this crisis was very difficult to manage, especially because in April loved ones were affected and members of the editorial staff suffered mourning. “He explains who also spent almost 24 hours with caregivers and patients at the CHUV in April 2020, while the deaths followed one another.

However, Olivier Monod describes: ” It’s a certain opportunity to follow the pandemic so closely, which allows us to really make sense of things, even if our loved ones are asking us for too much information or our writings are depressing. »

Cyberbullying has become widespread

Among the difficulties encountered over the last two years, what comes back to the mouths of all the journalists we have exchanged with is cyberbullying. Insults, threats, doxxing were everyone’s business. In France, the phenomenon began between February and March 2020 with discussions on hydroxychloroquine. Elsewhere, harassment began a little later with the debate over ivermectin in early 2021. It increased with vaccination and health / vaccination passes, that is, when things took a really political turn. and pandemic fatigue was beginning to emerge.

“I received sexist messages such as ‘go back to your kitchen’, more and more violent and threatening, where people were talking about putting me out of harm’s way. »

Johanne Montay

At the beginning of the crisis, I received mostly legitimate and relatively friendly questions “recalls Johanne Montay of RTBF. Those questions then quickly disappeared to make way for only the angry comments of people who have a worldview where an elite would be responsible for harming the rest of the population. From there, I received increasingly violent and threatening sexist messages like “go back to your kitchen,” where people were talking about putting me out of harm’s way. »

Annick Chevillot has similar memories: ” Gradually, things took a political turn and a real conspiracy scenario was organized. We’ve always tried to be as impartial as possible, we’ve seen what made sense or not. Heidi’s editorial staff received threats such as “Heidi will end up like Charlie.” And, personally, I have been the target of many insulting and intimidating messages. Treated as a “whore of the official voice” and threatened with death, the journalist filed a complaint and her harasser was found guilty in the first instance.

Hydroxychloroquine was the source of the first wave of conspiratorial ideas in France about covid. // Font: Numerama / Lucie Benoit

Jean-François Cliche also had to go to court. ” I received a lot of insulting messages from antivax people, but also, to a lesser extent, from ultra-alarm people who thought that nothing was enough to stop the pandemic. Aggression multiplied tenfold with the advent of vaccines and of course I was found guilty of all the mistakes and labeled exhausted at Pfizer or Big Pharma. I also received threats and filed a complaint twice. »

Johanne Montay observes bursts of very organized messages, as we have already reported for scientists and doctors engaged in the fight against Covid-19. ” One day we received dozens of emails reminding us of the Munich Charter with a photograph of a journalist hanging. Although they looked like isolated individuals, the concomitant shipments clearly showed their coordinated nature.. »

Journalists have had to adapt to the situation. Olivier Monod tells us that he limited the damage by blocking his Twitter account and drastically limiting social media interactions. That didn’t stop him from receiving a death threat by email in late March 2022.

Living with cyberbullying

How do we live with that? It seems very dependent on everyone, even if the weight is heavy. “ I felt like I was surrounded by a strong minority says Johanne Montay. I wouldn’t say I was scared, but I wasn’t very comfortable and I have to admit I had a few “downhill” moments when I had to take a step back.. »

“It simply came to our notice then. »

Annick Chevillot

Annick Chevillot also says she is moved by the insults. ” Journalists served as lightning rods. When people don’t like the message, shoot the messengers. But am I a victim? I don’t know, I’m doing my job. The truth is that I have become extremely misanthropic and I no longer have the same pleasure as going out to see people.. “In Heidi.Newsalso writes: I admit it, I’m fed up. Threats, verbal aggression, insults, murderous words. I wonder how long I will tolerate this. Or when my tolerance becomes laxity. »

After two years, in fact, some go around, get used to the insults and threats and find solutions. This is the case with Jean-François Cliche: “ He had previously been the target of harassment. It’s never nice, but I’ve learned to deal with it and especially to read the positive messages I also receive and to respond to them instead of just paying attention to criticism. »

After two years, fatigue begins

How are our journalists after 2 years of pandemic? Some do not hide their exhaustion, such as Annick Chevillot who explains that it is ” burned after working between 50 and 80 hours a week for 22 months, when others say they have found solutions to protect themselves: Of course, the fact that the crisis lasts so long is tiring but I have learned to take care of my health and not take too much work home. “, Says Olivier Monod.

The truth is that, for everyone, passion and enthusiasm are maintained, no matter what happens, despite the blows and fatigue. And a wish, summed up by Jean-François Cliche: “ I hope that this crisis has made it possible to measure the importance of science journalism. »

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