Newspapers Must Offer Dangerous Assignment Training

By: Jim Moscou

Op-Ed Column

Let’s get right to it: If you’re an editor or a publisher, and you send a reporter out on a hazardous assignment without the training or equipment to mitigate the attendant risks, and your reporter is injured or killed, then you’ll have blood on your hands. You deserve to be sued — and you will be, some day. You deserve to lose. You deserve to be publicly skewered. You deserve sleepless nights and a guilty conscience.

Last winter, I began to examine reporter safety, and I haven’t liked what I’ve seen since. It was an interest sparked after I took a weeklong course in England on reporting in hostile environments. I’ll skip the course details, except for the one simple lesson that has stuck with me: If there are hazards in my assignment, I can’t completely control whether or not I’ll be hurt, but I can play with the odds.

Newspaper owners and managers aren’t helping to lower the odds fast enough, especially at midsize organizations. Reporters are being sent unprepared into dangerous assignments, from unfolding riots to floods to foreign wars.

Broad industry commitment to training is all but absent, mentoring increasingly obsolete. I’ve seen the unprepared myself and spoken with dozens of reporters who concede they grab hazardous assignments with enthusiasm — yet with little knowledge on how to mitigate the risks. Hurricanes, chemical spills, anthrax? If the newsroom naivete weren’t so self-evident, it would be scandalous.

At the heart of the issue is an old industry quid pro quo: Reporters get lousy pay and long hours in exchange for exciting assignments and maybe a first crack at history. Some call it adrenaline addiction; others, a twisted form of narcissism: After all, danger can be a great career move. Whatever the motive, the arrangement is a deadly dance.

To cite just one recent example: In August, five reporters, including two print journalists, from the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Saint Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, were injured when they responded to a “melee” after a small boy was accidentally shot by police. That melee turned into a riot, spurred on, in part, by arriving media. According to press reports, as the police pulled back from the increasingly agitated crowd, some reporters were caught and became the focus of ire. Four Pioneer Press journalists found themselves surrounded in their car.

Scary stuff. Impossible to anticipate — or is it? Even with minimal training, reporters in such a situation would know to plan an escape route in advance. Were they prepared for tear gas? For treating injuries? The checklist — available in various training materials — goes on.

Then there’s the experience of reporters Gwen Florio and Trent Seibert at The Denver Post, part of a small crew the paper rotated into Afghanistan last fall. With no experience in conflict reporting, these (volunteer) rookie combat reporters were charged mostly with gathering human-interest stories. The coverage was solid. The reporters said they were not. “I think back now, ‘My God, we did so many dumb things,'” Florio said. While traveling from Kabul to Jalalabad, Florio’s car went off the road. She was bruised. A few hours later, on the same road, a New Zealand colleague was killed in an accident.

Meanwhile, Seibert was in Jalalabad when, at last minute, he decided not to join a media convoy to Kabul. That convoy was ambushed. Four journalists were killed. When Seibert asked his bosses whether he and his photographer should return home, Post management was “just as naive as we were,” he said. After all, Seibert noted, “They had just as much experience as I did when it comes to covering a war.”

Naivete is curable. Demanding hostile-environment training, Florio and her colleagues got results. The Post is now sending a pack of reporters for training. Such classes are filling up with reporters, but mostly from TV and from large metro papers. Midsize newspapers are lagging.

When it comes to wildfire preparation, the Post is one of the few papers equipping and educating reporters on the hazards. In September, I visited the National Interagency Wildfire Center in Boise, Idaho, the nation’s de facto wildfire headquarters. I was astounded to hear so many stories about close calls.

The fact is, near-misses and injuries don’t make news. But, editors and publishers, consider yourself forewarned. Get educated and provide the money for preparation. Or you will pay in the end.

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