Dying to tell the story: Safety advice for freelancers in the field

The Journalists Memorial at the Newseum, Washington DC

The deaths of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik in Syria were an unpleasant reminder of the risks reporters expose themselves to in revealng untold stories. Alongside the official strand of Revolution documentaries this week’s Doc/Fest in Sheffield ran a nervous undercurrent. Is any story ever worth risking your life over?

Vaughan Smith, director of London’s Frontline Club gave a preview of the organisation’s forthcoming white paper, suggesting the development of a safety “kite mark” programme. This would give media outlets and insurers confidence in freelancers, who in turn would be encouraged to follow better practices.

I’ll link to the report when it’s published, but the meantime, here’s a few things to keep in mind in the field, as told by experts from across the festival’s sessions and panels.

Plan ahead

Carefully prepared contingency plans, risk assessment and exit strategies can make a life or death difference in uncertain situations. Channel 4 Commissioning Editor Siobhan Sinnerton said of the station’s safety documentation – rumoured to have reached a record fifty pages – “They piss people off…but they’re important documents. They end up being really useful tools if they’re done properly, for people in really scary places.”

Make sure it’s worth the risk

Photographer Giles Duley said, “If you’re there, you have to make sure you know why you’re there. If you’re there for a reason, that’s one thing. But if you go into places without a real reason, without a story to be told…that is the first risk assessment. Why you’re there. If you haven’t got a reason for being there, you shouldn’t be there.”

“Everyone sees risk assessment as a very boring thing” added Smith “but it is obviously nuts to take a risk without a reward”

Get some medical training

Duley, who lost his left arm and both legs when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan, said not even the most meticulous planning can keep you totally safe in a warzone.

“No amount of training or preparation. If there’s something like [an IED] it’s going to get you. These things will happen, it’s a dangerous, risky profession. But without people around you straight away who can give you that help you will just die.”

Duley was with a US army unit at the time of the explosion, who were able to act within the crucial “golden hour” after his injury and save his life. Saturday’s freelance safety panel were unanimous that for reporters who don’t have access to medical help in the field, basic first aid training should be a prerequisite.

Vaughan Smith said, “There should be an expectation that nobody should go without having some first aid – being able to look after other people and themselves.”

Protect your sources and fixers

It’s important to remember that by reporting from a dangerous or controversial situation, you’re not just putting yourself at risk. The network of people who help tell the story. In repressive regimes, the consequences of helping foreign journalists can be torture and murder.

Sinnerton suggests care should be taken with rushes. “If we’re somewhere under cover, say Zimbabwe or Eritrea we have very elaborate arrangements in that the team never travel with their rushes on them. They’ll leave them behind to be taken out of the country separately. If you are stopped and you have your rushes on you, the security forces will be able to go through and identify everybody who’s helped you in your programme.”

It’s safest, where possible to ensure anonymity on raw footage, rather than blurring faces after the fact. “If you’re going to obscure somebody, and you know you’re going to obscure them, it makes sense to do that on camera” said Sinnerton.

Emma James, who spent a year filming climate change activitsts for her film Just Do It, had a hard time convincing her subjects she could be trusted to document what often amounted to illegal activity. She went to great lengths – not datestamping tapes, not adding commentary while shooting – to ensure even if her footage was confiscated, it would be of little use as evidence.

For short term projects, activist journalist Leah Borromeo recommends marking tapes and equipment as “special procedure material.”

“Under the Police and Criminal Evidence act 1984, you say this is material of the media, and what you’re holding is a piece of newsgathering equipment. So if people want to take it off you they need a court order.”

As important as protecting sources in domestic stories is ensuring the safety of “fixers.” A good fixer will be your guide in unfamiliar territory, will be able to introduce you to helpful locals and talk you out of sticky situations. Journalists have a clear duty of care towards fixers, who frequently expose themselves to extreme risk. Sadly, that responsibility is not always upheld.

“I my experience the industry is pretty poor with fixers.” Says Smith. “In Kosovo when everyone pulled out there was very little thought for the fixers.”

Still, some take the responsibility to protect fixers more seriously than others. “In the past, I’ve tended to marry my fixers.” Says Smith, to some uncertain laughter from the audience.

“I did. Twice”

Have an exit strategy…and Learn Parkour.

Occupy Wallstreet livestreamer Tim Pool had an altogether more creative answer to the question of what to do when a situation turns ugly.

"The whole time I was at [the protests surrounding last year’s NATO summit in Chicago] I had goggles on my head. However, several of the other journalists were wearing combat helmets and wrist guards, shin guards – a light body armour – because they were worried.

“For me I’m more interested in being lightweight, because I do gymnastics and parkour training. So when it comes to an exit strategy, I always have an exit if not multiple. And I can train people. I did training on how to avoid getting arrested, and it’s basically, a journalist’s job is to tell a story, not to fight a cop over what their rights are. So if you get pushed out, you can get arrested or you can get shoved out of the event, but at least if you’re shoved out you can stand on the periphery and at least you can still interview people who are exiting. I guess my advice to everybody is always have a way out.”

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