Sydney Morning Herald, Age seek professional help to handle COVID-related comments

By Orietta Guerrera

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age



The past 18 months have been a difficult time. The stresses and uncertainty of COVID-19 are weighing heavily on our community. We’ve certainly witnessed the strain across our cities and among our readers, who have come to us in droves for up-to-the-minute news on health advice, government announcements, and, sadly, casualties.

Early in the pandemic, it became apparent that some of our readers were struggling. Our comment moderators, who are tasked with pre-moderating any comments that appear on our online articles, began reporting an increase in readers sharing feelings of hopelessness and despair — from financial shock of losing jobs, health concerns, or being separated from loved ones because of local restrictions or border closures.

Newsroom staff had to learn how to support readers struggling with mental health issues while mitigating the same in their own lives.
Newsroom staff had to learn how to support readers struggling with mental health issues while mitigating the same in their own lives.

It raised questions about how we handle these comments on our public sites, but also about what our duty of care is to readers. It also came at a time when staff members were grappling with the general struggle of life under lockdown. We certainly weren’t immune to the havoc the pandemic wreaked on others. What followed was a cooperative effort among our comment moderators, customer service team, and editorial staff.

The three teams came together to discuss how to respond to such reader comments and whether there were times when we needed to intervene more. For example, did we need to call the police for a welfare check. It was important these decisions weren’t left to one person to decide.

We created a WhatsApp group with a small number of staff so moderators were able to share concerning reader comments, allowing for a discussion on the best course of action. WhatsApp was an important platform for this as these comments were being posted at all hours, not just Monday through from Friday from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. when we’d more commonly have our e-mail or Slack channels open in front of us. It was important that we responded to distressed readers in a timely way.

The most common course of action was to e-mail our readers to assure them they weren’t alone and help was available. The e-mail included the phone numbers for several helplines. Given we were e-mailing readers directly about something so delicate, we discussed the wording with a trained psychologist and our internal human resources team.

When confronted with several quite distressing comments in close succession, we revisited the discussion about the appropriate time to call police for a welfare check on subscribers. (This was only something we could do for subscribers given we had their home address.) However, a privacy issue was raised. We were having to access our subscribers’ contact details given to us for the purpose of purchasing a subscription to provide those details to the police. After a discussion with our legal team, they reflected this scenario of “at-risk” readers in our new privacy policy for customers.

At first, we erred on the side of caution and called the police several times, providing them with a reader’s contact details and an outline of our concerns. While we were conscious of not being a nuisance to police, we were mindful that we weren’t trained to make these judgments. When two of our most populous states, Sydney and Melbourne, were plunged into lockdown again halfway through this year, along with much of our readership, the tone of comments shifted again. And the strain was certainly felt by staff.

Through our HR department, we engaged a psychologist to discuss with relevant staff the types of comments we were receiving and what action would be helpful to our readers, but were also fair to our staff. What followed was an enlightening conversation about “duty of care” and also the changing views around the public discussion of suicide. We were also reminded of the positive community service we are providing just by giving readers the ability to comment on articles, where they are able to discuss their hardship and know they’re not alone.

At times, it has been uplifting to see readers reach out to one another and be supported. I know after our meeting with the psychologist, all staff were appreciative of having had a forum to discuss the issue. They felt better equipped to make judgments in this area, and it also allowed them to put less pressure on themselves.

Beyond this, we have discussed how else we can provide readers with relevant, helpful information at a time when they’re feeling the pressure. On occasion, we ask bloggers to post the helplines within our national daily news blog, where much of the breaking COVID news coverage sits. When it’s evident it’s a difficult day, we post them as a parent comment within the comment thread on the blog and/or in relevant articles, careful not to single out any one reader publicly. This has been well received, with several responses from readers thanking our moderators: “Appreciate the thoughtful post.”

In Australia, the pandemic has resulted in an increase in helpline calls and pressure on mental health services. However, only last week the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that despite initial fears, the nation’s suicide rate fell to its lowest level in years in 2020. Experts pointed to increased government support payments (keeping people out of poverty) and more people being able to get help before they hit crisis points as factors in the lower suicide rate.

It was welcome news. Now we, like many around the world, are looking forward to turning the corner on what has been a horrendous time for many.

About Orietta Guerrera

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