Safety and security best practices for freelance journalists

by Lucía Ballon-Becerra
Nov 30, 2020 in Digital and Physical Safety
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This is the second webinar in our Freelance Hacks webinar series. A recap of the first webinar, on juggling commercial work with journalism, can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed safety concerns front and center for journalists in 2020. As they have reported on the novel coronavirus, journalists and newsroom editors have regularly been tasked with analyzing the health and security risks that accompany their coverage. 

How have freelance journalists ensured that their safety concerns receive needed support from newsrooms? How can they do so moving forward, as the virus wanes? 

As part of our Freelance Hacks webinar series, run in partnership with Hackpack, we spoke with freelance photojournalist Christian Monterrosa, freelance journalist Aliya Bashir and ACOS Alliance executive director Elisabet Cantenys to discuss how safety considerations for freelancers have evolved as a result of the pandemic. The panelists also offered tips for navigating safety training and resources available to freelancers.



Here are some key quotes and takeaways from the session: 

On freelance journalists’ primary safety concerns, and how they’ve evolved during the pandemic 

Monterrosa: The uncertainty behind the virus and not knowing how infectious it was in the earlier months was of particular concern. I had to learn a new workflow with COVID in mind, like packing extra clothes, constantly changing masks and applying hand sanitizer. 

Issues that I have covered in the past, such as wildfires and civil conflicts, already carry an element of danger, but now it’s coupled with the risk of exposing myself to the virus. Covering protests, for example, became more anxiety-inducing. 

Bashir: In the past, my main concern would be the safety of those involved in what I was covering, like violent confrontations between civilians and any power structure, all visible to the eye. This year I was mostly worried about my own safety facing an invisible enemy, which was a major shift. Avoiding the virus was at the top of my worries, and all the safety guidelines recommended by medical experts constantly occupied my mind. What helped me was staying tuned to different resources and advisories on how to cover the pandemic and how to stay socially distanced when doing so. 

Cantenys: The pandemic has changed our perspectives. Before, safety was only relevant to those covering conflict areas or war zones. In fact, many journalists covering the pandemic early on approached their reporting in the same way they would undertake covering a war zone. Now, although journalists face varying levels of threat depending where they are based and what stories they cover, taking adequate safety measures is at the forefront of priorities. 

[Read more: Tips for coping after reporting distressing and traumatic stories]

On communicating safety concerns to editors 

Bashir: As a freelancer, you are always more vulnerable due to the lack of infrastructure, like security teams and logistical support, in place. The editors I’ve worked with were mostly based in the West, meaning they don’t know the dangers and local nuances acquainted with the country I was covering. For example, their story angle recommendations would require in-person interviews, which was not possible during the early months of contagion. But, when I would resort to remote interviews, it wouldn’t satisfy the editor’s expectations. 

From their perspective, the concern was getting a story, so I made it a personal decision to assess whether or not to report in person. 

Monterrosa: At first, addressing the issue of COVID and the accompanying safety concerns were few and far between. While larger institutions took serious steps to provide people with proper PPE, I think editors could have been more proactive. Freelancers themselves do bear equal responsibility in terms of speaking up if the conditions of an assignment are unsafe, and in assessing the risks associated with the offer. 

It’s important to do a cost-benefit analysis, and even demand hazard pay or further protections from the editor. More recently, I have seen more editors reaching out to ensure I have proper equipment or to see if they can provide me with any. Although this level of concern is still rare and not yet the norm, the level of effort has improved. 

On recommendations for editors who manage freelancers 

Cantenys: At ACOS Alliance, we developed COVID-19 safety protocols, which are geared toward encouraging editors and news managers who haven’t adopted safety measures to get on board. These documents underscore the importance of safety planning, in addition to setting the discussion about PPE and safety considerations between editors and freelancers as a prerequisite in professional journalism.

On their advice for freelancers who may feel pressured financially or professionally to accept an assignment 

Monterrosa: I think freelancers should accept each assignment on a case by case basis. Assess the environment in which the reporting would take place, any contingencies, the safety equipment available, and your access to health insurance. With this in mind, it comes down to deciding if the risk of the commission balances the compensation. 

Bashir: I think it’s a very personal decision and you have to make a judgement call. Have the conversation with editors about your concerns; I think communicating your concerns to the editors is the bridge. We have to be hopeful and we have to take all the precautions and preventions necessary. 

Cantenys: Freelancers should not be a form of risk mitigation. We shouldn’t allow news organizations to outsource their responsibilities by working with freelancers. That responsibility starts with the freelancer: initiate an honest conversation with the editor, but also invite the editor to look into some standard best practice recommendations. 

[Read more: Threats and violence against reporters in Belarus]

On safety training tips 

Monterrosa: I participated in ACOS Alliance’s civil unrest and first aid courses, which have moved to a virtual setting. It’s a bit challenging to not receive hands-on training, but the courses still offer plenty of useful knowledge. 

I’ve also undergone a three-month wildfire academy training to familiarize myself with wildfire behavior, suppression tactics and first aid safety. These are all topics journalists should never learn on the job. I urge all freelancers to do their research to figure out the best resources for what they cover and enter those environments prepared with some formal and informal training under their belt. 

Bashir: In 2016, I took a hostile environment first aid training offered by the International Women’s Media Foundation. This training provided me with firsthand experience on the planning process: preparing risk assessments, emergency first aid, personal security, self-defense and travel safety. I also participated in a similar training that ACOS offered in partnership with the New York Times and the Pulitzer Center in 2017, which helped me prepare for dangerous situations by undergoing a series of simulation scenarios. 

These trainings gave me confidence in my reporting and I still find what I learned to be useful in my work today. Researching suitable training opportunities should be at the top of the list for every freelancer covering conflicts or epidemics. 

Cantenys: The most important thing when considering which training and resources to seek out, is to understand your journalistic profile and where you want your career path to lead. Based on that profile, you can assess what kind of situational awareness you need and what potential crisis scenarios you could confront. ACOS Alliance offers intensive courses spanning over 3-6 days that prepare journalists for high-risk and threatening scenarios, like kidnapping. Hopefully you’ll never need to use what you learn in real-time, but if you don’t use it, you lose it, so accessing refresher content after the course is essential. 

The true success of these training courses is that it changes your perspective and allows you to approach your reporting through the lenses of safety.  

On tips for reporting in the field

Bashir: I always take my partner when I travel because it helps me feel more safe. We know social distancing is important, so I also try to avoid indoor interviews or places where I may feel vulnerable. We just have to try our best to calculate risks and properly plan security measures, because at the end of the day no story is worth a life. 

Monterrosa: From my experience, I recommend not going to the reporting ground alone. At this point, I’ve built a base of people who I trust in menacing environments. We’ve devised basic hand signals to communicate when things seem off, if we spot an individual carrying a gun or if it’s time for a helmet, for example.

Relationship building is very important. We don’t have to be flies on the wall. Establishing a rapport with people on the ground has saved me so many times, especially now as we’re seeing increased hostility toward journalists.

Cantenys: Before heading to the reporting ground, implement a risk assessment and consider the threats you may encounter for each particular assignment. Then, start to visualize different scenarios and prepare a plan for all of these eventualities. 

Resources mentioned during the webinar

Lucía Ballon-Becerra is a program assistant at ICFJ.