Our increasingly dangerous profession saw 94 journalists and media workers – including camera operators, technicians and media protection officers – die in targeted killings, bomb attacks and crossfire incidents last year (International Federation of Journalists, 2018).
As well as being physically at risk in conflict areas, journalists are also threatened by a range of other dangers, including being injured out in the field, suffering PTSD, or even being digitally targeted.
Risk Assessments may seem a laborious task, but they are a vital necessity for journalists in order to prepare themselves for assignments both out in the field and in the office.
“You should have some form of training in place to make sure that your staff understand policies and processes that exist within your company,” Sally Fitton, High Risk Adviser in the BBC High Risk team, said at the 71st World News Media Congress in Glasgow this week.
“Carrying out a thorough risk assessment should be part of the DNA of your newsroom.
“You will of course get push-back from some members of staff who have been ‘alright until now’, but this small task can save time, effort, danger and injuries in the future – and your staff will ultimately feel supported and looked after.”
These factors should be enough for any editor (and their staff) to take safety seriously, never mind the legal, financial or reputational damages that could occur if staff were put in harm’s way unnecessarily.
So, how do we get started? Here are Fitton’s tips for getting to grips with risk assessments.
Design an easy-to-follow template for your organisation
“It is really important that there is ownership from people going out on the ground,” she said, noting that it should be the responsibility of each individual journalist to check the potential risks and do their own risk assessment.
“Completing one before an assignment should just be part of the planning process, not something that’s difficult or a chore.”
Indeed, whether a journalist travels alone or with a team, they are ultimately responsible for their own safety, she explained, noting that a risk assessment enables each journalist to consider the risks before they deploy – it should not be left to the editor to take on.
“But to encourage reporters to get in the habit of filling out a risk assessment, a template needs to be accessible to them – make it easier,” she said, explaining that some newsrooms choose to use online forms so the majority of it (but not specific details) can be filled in with dropdown menus and multiple choice answers.
Identify the risks of your task ahead, and put mitigations in place
Fitton emphasised the importance of thinking outside the box when listing all the hazardous possibilities of a shoot – might there be any surprises or residual risks?
“It is important that all possibilities are documented, and then shared with the team – once you have identified a problem, you’ll be able to prepare for it as best you can,” she said.
“For example, let’s say you are going on a boat and you’ve identified one of the risks, no matter how unlikely you might think it to be, as drowning. You could assume that wearing a life vest, ensuring every person can swim, checking the weather forecast beforehand and having a competent captain on the boat will significantly reduce the risk of drowning.”
Know your team’s experience, competency and local relationships
“It’s so important to think about your team and the experience of the people within it,” she said.
“Make sure you’re aware of how good they are they at what they do, and whether members of the team will work well together. If it is it a dysfunctional team, you have to measure this and weigh it up against the environment they will be working together in.
“Also get to know the kind of local relationships member of the team have – their contacts might come into relevance out in the field should you need local support.”
Assessment of environment
“Do all the members of your team understand the context of the environment that they’re working in?,” she said.
“Get thinking about the local situations you’ll be working around – is the situation politically charged around election time? Are there protests or events taking place that might affect your story?”
Fitton questioned whether newsrooms may need to hire a security team or a high-risk adviser during their operations.
“Do they have training in safety? Experience in similar situations? Is there a communications plan agreed should the newsroom have to be notified of any updates?,” she said.
“It might be worth developing a standard risk assessment that can be amended for certain situations – just incase of a breaking news scenario, where reporters have to get out to the story straight away,” she said.
Have a plan – and stick to it
“What will your team be doing, what is the plan throughout the task? You need to have an itinerary about who you’ll be talking to, when and where,” she said.
“This is also a really good way for people without a plan to develop one. For stories where it will be impossible to think this far ahead, they should be open about that in the risk assessment – which may affect your communications plan.
“In this case, you might have to do a situational report every evening, noting who you’ve spoken to and what you’ve done – you can add to your risk assessment and the operational plan along the way.”
Kidnap forms and IMEI numbers for your phone
“Think about the minor details which can often become the big issues,” she said.
“Do you want to use trackers for your team? Will you need to develop kidnap forms? Does someone in the newsroom need to be tracking you?”
Process, editorial sign off
“You need to know who is going to regularly sign off the risk assessments in your organisation – how high will it go up the chain?” Fitton said.
“This will ultimately depend on the processes within your organisation, but they need to be identified in order to implement a system.”
Of course, there are many other safety factors that need to be taken into account before an assignment, especially one that is potentially dangerous. Digital encryption, data protection, dress codes and even accommodation choices should all play a factor in how you prepare for an assignment – and how you act once you’re on it.
Fitton recommended that all news organisations review their current safety practices and protocols, helping them to identify any weaknesses in the relation to the security of all working for them – including freelancers. A self-assessment template is available from the ACOS Alliance, which can be modified according to each individual organisation.
There are also many training courses available for journalists, and a number of NGOs such as the Rory Peck Trust, CPJ, Reporters without Borders, or Internews, which can provide advice, financial support in times of crisis.
“Whatever you do, make sure you remember the four C’s of safety: Communication, Control, Cooperation and Competence,” she said.
By Caroline Scott