Increasing violence towards media workers has led news organisations to try to protect their employees working in dangerous areas as much as they can. This includes making training compulsory, providing bulletproof jackets, armoured vehicles and bodyguards, limiting or banning travel, etc.
News organisations are also increasingly turning their attention to the safety of local stringers, who often work alone in the field, sometimes in highly dangerous circumstances. On 12 February 2015, dozens of media companies and press freedom groups, including Reporters Without Borders, launched a joint appeal for observance of international safety rules for freelance journalists working in dangerous areas and for editors and news organisations that employ them. The document notes the “vital role” played by local journalists and freelancers in covering dangerous stories and urges editors and news organisations to show the same concern for the welfare of these journalists as they do for their own staffers regarding training and safety equipment, and to take the same responsibility for freelancers in the event of kidnap or injury.
Independently of this international effort, several large broadcasters and print media organisations have already enacted safety procedures to protect their journalists, both staffers and stringers. RSF has questioned AFP, Reuters, the BBC and France Médias Monde on the subject and some general “best practices” have emerged which should be encouraged, such as careful risk assessment, attention to training, supervision, post-assignment debriefing, sharing of safety information and awareness of post-traumatic stress.
1. THOROUGH RISK-ASSESSMENT
At Reuters, no one is allowed to undertake a potentially lifethreatening assignment without the approval of a senior editor and the appropriate regional general manager. The France Médias Monde group has recruited an adviser specifically responsible for the prevention of risks during reporting assignments. This adviser, who formerly worked for the French ministries of defence and foreign affairs, helps journalists and senior editors weigh the news value of a story and the risks it entails.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has also gone to great lengths in examining high-risk assignments, including sending staff to hostile areas, covert filming of dangerous groups and covering dangerous events such as terrorist attacks, natural and man-made disasters and pandemics. The BBC has created a High Risk team dedicated to assessing the risks associated with newsgathering activities and to help editors with planning and deployment. For every assignment classified as high risk, the BBC requires:
- A detailed written assessment of the risks and the steps to take to mitigate these.
- That all those involved, whether staff, stringers, consultants or contractors, are appropriately trained and/or experienced.
- The identification of appropriate safety equipment for the teams, to include personal protective equipment, first aid / trauma packs, communications equipment.
- The appropriate level of management sign-off for the deployment based on the understanding and acceptance that the risks justify the editorial ambitions.
Staff undertake high risk work on a completely voluntary basis and have the absolute right to decline such work without penalty or any other detrimental consequence.
2. RAINING AND EQUIPMENT
Many news organisations, including those that signed the 12 February 2015 appeal on the safety of freelancers, ensure that their journalists, both staff and freelance, working in dangerous places receive appropriate training in first aid and working in hostile environments. They are also encouraged to keep their training up to date.
An increasing number of editors provide their journalists with protective equipment such as bulletproof vests, helmets and breathing masks. Given the risk of sexual violence, France Médias Monde also provide staff on assignment with kits to use after a sexual attack, containing a morning-after pill, broad-spectrum antibiotics and a tritherapy kit for emergency anti-HIV treatment until the victim can be given treatment in hospital.
3. TEAMWORK AND SUPERVISION
AFP always tries to ensure that its video journalists do not cover dangerous demonstrations alone and are always accompanied by one of the agency’s text journalists or photographers to watch their back. In general terms, working in teams is the rule in dangerous areas. Several newsrooms appoint a team leader who is responsible for the equipment, for making decisions on safety and to ensure that fixers and other locally hired staff have enough training and/or experience. In some cases a professional security adviser may accompany the team on assignment and offer logistical support, helping to find safe accommodation and a vehicle, for example.
4. IMPORTANCE OF THE DEBRIEFING
The post-assignment debriefing provides an evaluation of what worked and what didn’t during the assignment and any lessons for future missions. It also allows senior editorial staff to face up to their responsibilities as they listen to the feedback from those who return from the field. At France Médias Monde, senior news editors and all members of the team attend the debriefing, as well as a representative from the technical side. Its purpose is to sum up the problems encountered during the assignment, focusing on three aspects:
- Editorial: did the stories meet the goals that were set?
- Technical: did the equipment and feeds work satisfactorily?
- Human: was there a good understanding within the team and in exchanges with the newsdesk?
5. SHARING INFORMATION
“Reporters returning from a difficult location are a gold mine of information for those who follow them,” said one AFP journalist. For this reason, the agency has set up a secure blog for its staff, and also for some clients who have requested it, which catalogues the latest information and advice on current conflicts and crises, including recommendations on hotels, itineraries, etc., as well as feedback on previous crises, such as the Ebola outbreak, the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, as well as practical country profiles, checklists and tutorials on what to put in your kitbag, how to put on a bullet-proof jacket, etc.
The BBC notes that the post-assignment debriefing should include a verbal or written summary of the assignment, reporters’ and editors’ experiences, and any relevant new information or advice that will help inform future risk assessments and improve safety procedures.
6. MANAGING PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA
The post-assignment debriefing is also an opportunity to detect possible signs of post-traumatic stress among journalists. Many editors encourage their journalists to seek psychological help if a story appears to have been particularly distressing. Since post-traumatic stress is still largely a taboo subject in the news business, it should be possible to request such psychological support confidentially.
At France Médias Monde, a psychologist is available at all times at the group’s headquarters and may take part in post-assignment debriefings.
More broadly, managers can help prevent post-traumatic stress by keeping a watchful eye on their journalists. Some reporters say that when they return from a dangerous assignment, they would like their managers to cut them some slack for a few days, to be able to gently ease back into their routine and get rid of the accumulated stress, and also for their colleagues to refrain from making sarcastic comments (such as “how was your holiday?”). Some editors ask a colleague close to the returning reporter to keep an eye on him or her for a few weeks and to report any signs of post-traumatic stress, such as emotional fragility or unexpected introversion. These symptoms are described in more detail in the following chapter.