The past few years have seen increases in journalists deployed to high risk areas both domestic and international. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) statistics show that in the past 30 years over 1440 journalists have died as a result of their role or while deployed on assignment. Global reporting shows that 55 journalists were killed in 2021 with nearly two dozen so far this year. While many of these deaths may be attributed to operations in combat zones there are a number of attacks on members of the press unrelated to combat reporting and in areas not known to be hazardous. Those who work with journalists can certainly attest to the fact that these men and women are, much like soldiers or police, more apt to run towards danger than away from it. In some cases news rooms are eager to have their personnel in harm’s way to get live shots, candid stories and the ground truth while in others reporters are urged to shy away from any threat.
No matter what type of reporting an organization engages in, journalists are facing more threats than ever. The polarization and vitriolic nature of politics, informal news and social media these days has made it so that journalists are easy fodder for whoever’s opinion their story may oppose. There is no set standard or best practice for deployment of news-media personnel and every organization has their way of doing business. The decision on whether or not to deploy into a particular danger zone or conflict area is not one to be taken lightly. There are four key lessons learned that Managers and Journalists must consider.
1. DON’T GO IT ALONE! Seek input and intelligence from Security Professionals
Most established, professional news organizations will have a security manager or team on staff that is specially trained and experienced in planning and preparing for deployments. Security Managers must ensure news leaders have the information to make the right decisions regarding such deployments. Thorough assessments on the area of intended operations should be undertaken. Security practitioners should ensure they include a current assessment and study of potential risks including criminal threat, health and environmental threat, cyber and intelligence threat, and political or terrorist threat. While intelligence reports can be obtained through contract providers, the savvy professional will not rely on a single source. Instead, look to glean as much from as many different open and closed sources that you can. Being a member of the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), Domestic Security Alliance Council (DSAC), the International News Safety Institute (INSI) and other federal, state or local security cooperation organizations can be helpful in benchmarking, gleaning current information and reviewing situation reports. Additionally, informal chats with Regional Security Officers, expats or counterpart agencies and news bureaus can be beneficial in separating fact from myth. Security professionals, for their part should not be too quick to say ‘no’ to deployments. Our role should be to provide facts, propose courses of action, create a dialog, assist and advise along the way. I hear far too often of organizations who shy away from their internal security personnel because of the excessive fear they impose or because they will over control the operation. The Security Team should be a collaborator, facilitator and ally rather than a road block. That is not to say that if the risk is simply too high or that resources are unable to provide adequate protection for the journalist the security will turn their back and allow the deployment to go on. We must be ready to provide a candid, brutally true take on what our concerns are without being overbearing or taciturn, and Journalists should feel that we are a resource rather than a burden.
2. DON’T BE OVERCONFIDENT.
Prior success does not ensure stability in a new mission. Ensure deploying personnel have adequate training and experience for high risk deployment.
Having a cavalier attitude on a high risk deployment can lead to unnecessary risk and exposure. Even the saltiest most seasoned combat veterans will tell you that there are no ‘routine’ missions. Planning, inspecting, rehearsing or at least talking through plans is a must. Some organizations require any reporter going into a conflict or high risk area to have completed a formal course of instruction such as Hostile Environment First Aid Training commonly known as HEFAT. Such courses may be two to five days in duration and should cover basic principles of operating in hostile environments to include; deployment planning, crowd dynamics and protests, basic navigation, travel security, overland movement, reacting to checkpoints, ambushes or gunfire, hostage situations, basic trauma first aid and communications. Other organizations may only require a security briefing and or pre-deployment plan of sorts. Ideally you do not want to send a rookie journalist to a conflict area. Care should be taken to ensure that the individual has the necessary experience and maturity, preferably with reasonable language skills and cultural knowledge as well. Absent the ability to complete a formal HEFAT course, journalists should be provided with a very strong safety and security brief to ensure they understand their role. They should back brief details and demonstrate their understanding of the environment, what to do in the event of illness, injury, compromise or capture and they must know how to communicate, move, report and use any PPE they may be issued. It is sad to see what we believe to be seasoned reporters on international news channels wearing helmets tilted back with no chin straps or body armor backwards. It is up to security teams to help these folks ready themselves for these missions and potential hazards.
3. MAKE A PLAN – ALL DEPLOYMENTS NEED A PLAN.
What could go wrong? (Quoting Bill Murray in Stripes) “we zip in we zip out…it’s like going to Wisconsin”) History is filled with military missions which were planned as “in and out” operations but lasted days causing problems for isolated troops with insufficient ammo, food and water. While many deployments may require immediacy, hasty “load n go” operations with little or no planning can quickly become a catastrophe. In some cases what is intended to be a quick jaunt for a photo or interview can easily become a long operation with no time for resupply. Even when faced with an impending move, Managers can employ a rapid planning process which should require a minimum of a map and route recon, a movement plan, communications plan, and what the military calls a five point “GOTWA” contingency plan. (G- Going – where am I going and how am I getting there, O- Others – who am I taking with me and what equipment will I take, what others are nearby, T- Time – Time it will take me to get there, time I will stay, time I am expected to return, W – What – What I will do if I cannot communicate, what you will do if you do not hear from me or I do not return, A – Actions – What actions I will take if I am injured, lost or captured.)
Have checkpoints and times for communications, establish a route plan and contingency plan and plan for what you will need to include a small survival kit, PPE and food and water. Have solid comms, amazingly some journalists don’t check to see if their cell phones will work and then find themselves scrambling for a local phone. Try to bring a throw down “burner” or contingency mobile device as well as a Sat phone if permissible. Remember cash is king. Always have spare funds on hand and stash some away in your footwear or on your body just in case. The plan should be executable with resources at the ready if anything should go wrong.
4. HAVE A WRAP UP PLAN.
Duty of care should include a respite or rotation plan as well as a process to address any psychological trauma.
Journalists, much like military and law enforcement veterans, are often exposed to violence, disaster, tragedy and the worst in human beings. And much like soldiers they will, once accustomed, become numb to what most would consider to be significant emotional experiences. Even in combat zones, going for days or weeks without any attack or kinetic action leads to a looser sense of awareness or downplay of potential threat. On the other hand, for some, a constant threat can become banalized. Whether the scars are visible or not, the cumulative stresses of seeing combat injuries, people and animals suffering, death and destruction can and will take a tremendous toll. Managers should stay attuned and watchful for signs of stress and organizations should require periodic respite leave. Journalists will often fear they will miss out on “their” story or lose the contacts or sources they have worked so hard to cultivate. Others will express that they are just fine and can stick it out for the long haul as they have done elsewhere. Having mandatory stop dates or rotations for respite leave is not only healthy but will allow for mental decompression, debriefs and resupply. The time will also allow organizations to offer any necessary therapy or supportive care. Corporate Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) may not have the right resources to address these types of trauma. Columbia’s Journalism School operates the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a resource center and global network which has a number of interesting support programs and papers. This duty of care for the mental health of those covering trauma should be an integral part of the planning and practices. Organizations should ensure they have a process in place not only for their FTE Journalists but stringers and contractors as well.
Deployment planning and support should include some form of oversight from a Security or News Safety Manager who can assist, advise, track and communicate with deployed personnel and liaise with senior leadership to ensure that journalists in high risk areas are covered throughout the life cycle of the news story – from planning to deployment, to rotation and return. The news business is unpredictable and dynamic and security inputs in high risk deployments is a must have not a nice to have. We owe it to our journalists and staff to provide all we can to support their safe work and psychological well-being in these chaotic and challenging assignments.