First Person | How women journalists cope with the pandemic


A pleasant day to all of you, I hope you are all healthy, safe, and well, wherever you are.

I’d like to give you a social science perspective on gender issues confronting the work environment of journalists. I would also be giving some recommendations to address these issues based on my background as a mental health specialist and on my experience as a former broadcast journalist.

“Newsrooms are very macho places.” That’s according to the late Chris Cramer, former war correspondent for the BBC, in an interview with Reuters. So, despite his traumatic experience of having survived the Iranian Embassy hostage taking in London in 1980, he had to return to his job as if nothing happened.

In the same Reuters article, American Journalist Bruce Shapiro, Executive Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma in Columbia University in New York backed up Cramer’s story, and explained that in the news industry, journalists believe that they have to be tough to do their jobs, and if they can’t, they better look for another career. Tough, in this sense, means they are expected to shrug off psychological distress.

Studies have shown that because of this macho, masculine ideal in the industry, journalists are discouraged from opening up on emotional distress, or on speaking up about their fears, concerns, and needs, because such could be perceived as indications of being unfit for the job.

Journalists are even expected to be able to go on for weeks without enough sleep and without asking your boss for time off. Choosing to do otherwise can be a career liability. So many suffer in silence. And suffering in silence is a source of stress. This macho culture, I’d like to note, affects both women and men in the industry. But of course, it is always more difficult for women.

Are there more men than women in senior leadership roles in your newsroom? We all know by now why this has been the case for too long – it is more difficult for women to climb the career ladder because of the double burden they carry. Unlike men, women, despite having the equal capacity to earn money or provide for the family, are still the ones expected to cook, clean, and care for the children after work. Men, on the other hand, are entitled to rest after work, focus on their career all their lives, and are allowed the opportunity to climb the career ladder uninterrupted even when they decide to marry or have kids. I cannot understand why it has to be different for women. Do not dare tell us to choose between a thriving career or having a family because men are having the best of both worlds. We are entitled to having the best of both worlds, too.

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened occupational conditions for women journalists and media workers. A study by the International Federation of Journalists among more than 500 women from 52 countries in July 2020 revealed that 75% reported more stress. According to half of them, the main stressor was in having to juggle working from home with child care and housekeeping, amid increased workloads, tighter deadlines, isolation from colleagues, fear of job loss, and fear of getting the virus. Some of them even had to deal with domestic violence.

In the Philippines, working from home meant working while your family is around, in oftentimes, cramped spaces. Not all of us have spacious houses with provisions for an office. The lack of physical space and the prolonged togetherness are enough to spark domestic tensions.

Gender inequality also intersects with socio-economic conditions. If you are a woman, and you are underprivileged, life would be harder for you. For example, a woman from the working class, a journalist for instance, typing on her laptop, working from home, isn’t really seen as someone who has a career, and is busy fulfilling that career. She is viewed as a homemaker first, expected to cook and clean when she can during her breaks, and care of the kids while finishing her story on the side. When the house begins to be unkempt, and the meals become repetitive and unappetizing because you’re too busy to plan meals, domestic affairs can get ugly. Unless you are more privileged and can afford cooking, housekeeping, and babysitting services from other women in the still more disadvantaged social class – from the informal labor sector – you really won’t be able to take a break and have enough time for self-care.

Socio-economic disadvantage compels women to neglect personal needs, which often leads to psychological problems. This is often the underlying problem of all the other problems that women talk about when they seek professional help. It is also a topic that women journalists can be reluctant to speak up on, given the perceived glitz and glamour of the news industry, and the expectations of our patriarchal culture on women.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, during the World Press Freedom Day last year, called attention to the mental health of journalists amid the impacts of the pandemic. The Peace and Conflict Journalism Network Philippines, Inc., through the support of the Initiative for Media Freedom Project by Internews, funded by the US AID, heeded the call through 16 volunteer peer supporters, myself included.

Peer supporters are media workers trained by mental health professionals to respond and provide emotional support to colleagues and peers in distress. We are well aware of the gender issues in our working environment. This awareness and our shared experiences help us become effective in providing support. The project hopes to address the inaccessibility of professional help. The service is free, and “always on, always available” – as our tagline says. And because we have shared experiences, we are hoping that the hesitance to open up would be addressed.

Still, there is a lot more left to do at the more fundamental level of culture. The macho ideal in the news industry impacts the help-seeking behavior of journalists. As I said earlier, many would rather suffer in silence than be perceived as unfit for the job. Suffering in silence is really ironic for journalists whose job is to give voice to the oppressed.

I’ve also seen men victimized by the macho culture. When I was still a reporter, I’ve observed soft-spoken males in the workplace, those who are not into basketball and those who do not randomly crack sexist jokes, become ostracized, teased, and made fun of just because they do not conform to the masculine ideal. Regardless of their sexuality, the disrespect is still reprehensible. Bullying is another source of stress in an already stressful job.

I’ve also had my share of unpleasant experiences as a woman. I had to endure hearing a lot of sexist jokes when videographers flock together. I would witness them catcalling women on the street. My regret was I wish I had been braver in calling these out, but I, too, felt unsafe in that environment. The unsolicited touching, patting on the back, hands that suddenly find their way to your hair, hands, or your shoulders, is another story.

Let me tell you another story: I was previewing a reel for a Brigada Eskwela story years back when I found a closed up footage of a woman’s breast cleavage. This woman was bent over a chair that she was repairing for the upcoming school year. I was so angry but couldn’t directly confront the cameraman because he was way senior than I was. I reported it to a newsroom senior leader, a woman. She too was disgusted and furious. But unfortunately, nothing came out of that effort of sounding the alarm about it.

And I cannot really blame them. I think we are all victims of this toxic patriarchy that we need to dismantle fast. And from the point of view of social science, and as a peer supporter, here are some of my recommendations:

Year in and year out, journalists and media workers undergo training on how to best do their jobs in an ever-changing information landscape. For sure, there will be a lot of capacity-building activities in the industry for the upcoming campaign and the 2022 elections. I hope to see gender-sensitivity training included in these professional development programs. The training should teach workers to be more gender aware and sensitive not only for the purpose of reporting the news, but in order to build a safer, more respectful, more enabling, and more equitable working environment for everyone in the profession.

I am yet to see women videographers. All camerapersons in TV news, as far as I know, are males. It’s probably because the set of equipment weighs as much as 15 kilograms, and those with the upper body strength are preferred for this job. But as technology evolves, and equipment is getting smaller and lighter, I hope more women would be encouraged to take on this role in news gathering. We definitely need a fresh set of eyes for visual storytelling, and a diverse manpower to advance more gender-sensitive practices in news gathering.

There are other areas in the news industry that are dominated by males: graphics design, motion graphics, information technology, and communications engineering. The underlying reason – female students shy away from these career paths because of certain gender stereotypes such as: males are better at operating computers and applications, and that engineering and math are only for boys. We need to dispel these stereotypes and increase the visibility of female role models in these areas. We shouldn’t deprive women and girls of the opportunities in these lucrative specializations.

Lastly, women should look out for each other instead of competing against each other. We can learn from how males protect and support their own kind. We need that kind of solidarity and unity in order to truly advance our cause. We need to support each other instead of judging how bad a mother your neighbor was for choosing to stay employed despite having kids, or how unwomanly your friend behaves because her house is a mess, or how shameful it is for your woman friend who doesn’t know how to cook. We should respect the different choices we make as individuals and provide non-judgmental support when our help is sought by the sisterhood.

Thank you, and good day.

Dionisio, E.R. (1993). More alike than different: women, men and gender as gender construction. Occasional Paper No. 3. National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women.
Feinstein, A., Owen, J. & Blair, N. (2002). A hazardous profession: War, journalism, and psychopathology. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159.9.1570-1576. Retrieved from

International Federation of Journalists. (2020, July 23). Covid-19 has increased gender inequalities in the media, IFJ survey finds. Retrieved from

Joelving, F. (2010, December 17). When the news breaks the journalist: PTSD. Reuters: Retrieved from

The following message was presented during the Roundtable Discussion on the Safety of Women Journalists and Media Practitioners organized under the Initiative for Media Freedom implemented by Internews and its partners with the support of the United States Agency for International Development. The event was held on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25 November, 2021.

About the speaker:

Tricia Zafra is among the peer supporters of PECOJON’s Peer Support for Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Program. Her determination to cope with stressful experiences as a broadcast journalist empowered her to take interest in Psychology and study the coping narratives of television journalists who covered the war on drugs. In 2020, she earned her master’s degree in Psychology from UP-Diliman. She intends to use her knowledge and experiences to empower her friends and peers.

She currently teaches Social Science in UP-Visayas. She’s also the Relationships Editor for online magazine, and the Chief of the Public Relations and Information Division of the Philippine Space Agency.

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