When working on a potentially dangerous assignment, it is imperative that you define the risks involved, assess their likelihood and develop a plan that details how you would respond should they materialize.
This process should result in the development of a “risk assessment.” When calculating risk and formulating your mitigation plans, you should make use of all elements of your research, and draw on your colleagues’ experience working on similar stories in similar, or the same, locations.
When reporting in conflict zones, or pursuing stories about refugees during the pandemic — during their journeys or once settled in host countries — a risk assessment is essential. No news outlet or media organization should allow you to travel without one.
Understanding risk assessments
Start putting together your risk assessment by drawing on information about the location(s) to which your reporting will take you, as well as research you’re carrying out for your story. Do not be alarmed if this assessment requires significant time and resources. Remember, it will help not only you, but your colleagues who may carry out their own reporting in the same location after you.
Treat your risk assessment as a living document, amending and updating it as you carry out your reporting, and after you come back from the field. This allows you to maximize the benefit to yourself and other journalists involved in the reporting. An effective risk assessment today should address health hazards due to COVID-19, in addition to threats to your physical, cyber and mental wellbeing.
To get started, here are some template forms of risk assessments used by the BBC.
Upon completing your risk assessment, discuss it with the relevant individual or team at your organization in charge of managing risk. Together, you will need to weigh the level of risk against the potential impact your on-site reporting will have.
If you deem the risk outweighs your reporting’s potential impact, then you and your organization will need to decide whether you should proceed with the field reporting. Should you proceed, keep in mind that as you constantly update your risk assessment, you may at some point reach a dead end. At that point, you will need to make a decision about when and how to conclude your field reporting and retreat back to your base.
Below are some resources that can help you develop your risk assessment:
- BBC Safety Guide for journalists
- The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ): Assessing and Responding to Risk
- The European Journalism Centre: Risk assessment for freelance journalists
- Journalism UK: Article on risk assessments
COVID-19 risk assessment
There are specific elements that differentiate a COVID-19 risk assessment from others. For example, location research should address the exposure of your location to viral infection, as well as travel plans in light of full or partial lockdowns, flight statuses and quarantine guidelines.
Make sure to also look at vaccine distribution criteria, medical capacity and first aid facilities at your travel destination, as well as how your medical equipment could be affected by all of the above.
Managing COVID-19 risks around your sources, journalists and others, such as stringers and drivers, will help you make safe, professional editorial decisions about your need to travel on location.
Here are some resources to assist you with your COVID-19 risk assessment:
- CPJ Safety Advisory for covering the coronavirus pandemic
- IREX Risk Assessment: Journalism and Civil Society Activism in a Post-COVID-19 World
- ACOS Alliance’s News Organizations Safety Protocols for Working with Freelancers
Planning for hostile environments
Hostile environments are those environments which are, could be, or may become dangerous for journalists and/or their sources. Consider the degree of danger in a conflict or war zone or troubled area, and define the threat level in your risk assessment in order to determine if your story is doable.
The nature of conflict and its impact on your logistics are the key points to include in your risk assessment, and which you need to keep an eye on throughout your reporting. Is the conflict one of government vs. militias, for instance? Or is it a case of civil opposition against the government, or two militia groups at odds with each other? These are just some of the potential types of conflict you might encounter, which should be clearly documented and defined.
After completing a risk assessment, and before traveling to a hostile environment, the planning or newsgathering members of your team should take care of all accreditation, documentation, insurance, alternative plans and evacuation strategy to enable your team to travel to a hostile environment.
A war zone assessment is a specific type of risk assessment that can be the simplest to put together for experienced journalists. However, it is the most difficult and unpredictable to execute. Due to the high level of risk, war zone assessments need approval from the high risk team in your newsroom or from your safety advisor.
Make sure to constantly update your risk assessment and send it to your newsroom or to your editor. If you are a freelancer, keep a regularly updated copy of your risk assessment safe and documented for insurance and editorial purposes. Make sure to include an exit strategy, assembly point, kidnap plan code and next of kin (NOK) in all of your risk assessments.
If your organization provides you with HEFAT training, which is a health and safety training designed for journalists working in hostile environments, make sure your training is current, and that you take a refresher course every three years. This training will help you better understand crisis environments, write your risk assessments, practice first aid and create safety plans before and while working in the field.
Here are some additional resources that can help you formulate your risk assessment.
- BBC safety guide for journalists covering demonstrations or protests
- Reporters Without Borders and UNESCO handbook for reporters in high-risk environments
- Coronavirus: Conflict zones and refugees in the Middle East, from the UK Parliament
- SouthFront website, which tracks conflict and war zones globally
- The Institute for the Study of War, which studies conflict and its impact on civilians
First aid resources and how-to videos
- Understanding which first aid items can go on flights, from Verywell Health
- Treating shooting wounds and cuts, by American Safety
- Treating burns, by ProFirstAid
- Understanding why landmines are still killing people, by the BBC
- Treating broken bones, by St. John Ambulance
- Treating severe bleeding, by St. John Ambulance
- First aid for catastrophic bleeding, by Aid Training
- Air flow block and breathing loss, by ProTrainings Europe
- Spinal injuries, by St. John Ambulance
- First aid for chest wounds, by The First Aid Show
- What goes in a grab bag, by the International News Safety Institute
- A four-part Safety Kit, from the Committee to Protect Journalists
IJNet's parent organization, ICFJ, partnered with the Facebook Journalism Project on its Reporting on Refugee Communities Amidst a Pandemic program.
Main graphic created by Malak Elabbar.