Minimize risk on the job: Tips for safer reporting

August 6, 2014 01:30

By Donna Francavilla, RTDNA Contributor
Reporters venture out into emotionally charged situations routinely. We don’t have to be standing in the middle of a war zone to be concerned about safety. Being close to dramatic, unfolding events involves risk.

Have you faced dangerous situations while out in the field? If you’ve worked in the business at all, you have. On July 23, 2014, a crew with Birmingham, Alabama's ABC 33-40 was harassed and shoved into a ditch moments before a live broadcast for the 10 PM newscast.  A woman attacked the reporter and the photographer, and damaged a camera and other equipment. Nightside reporter Sheri Evans and photographer Justin McCray were setting up the live shot and conducting microphone checks from the scene of a fatal shooting in Blount County when they were attacked by one of the residents of the home where the victim was killed.
This incident shook us all. How many times had we put ourselves in similar situations? We often safely report on volatile situations but sometimes, tempers flare.  Journalists unwittingly become part of the story, rather than merely unbiased observers. I phoned Sheri Evans the morning after the violent attack. She had been traumatized and was still shaken. Evans told me she had been reporting for 13 years, and though she had used her best judgment that night, in hindsight, perhaps the crew should have left the scene when the police did.

According to an online article published on, WBMA General Manager Mike Murphy said that Evans and McCray are both fine, but that the incident is a reminder for station personnel of the dangers reporters can face at crime scenes and in other tense situations. "It's a nice wakeup call," he said. Murphy also praised Evans and McCray for how they conducted themselves. "I am proud of them because they did not retaliate," he said. "They were just trying to defuse it.”
The journalists were reporting from a home in Locust Fork where 34-year old Ayatollah Khomeini Muhammad of Center Point, had been shot and killed I was dispatched to the same area the morning after the incident to follow up on this unfolding story. To their credit, after learning that their night-side news crew had a brush with danger, the WBMA news management team immediately took action. They took precautionary measures, which included reminding journalists to exercise caution, travel in pairs, and remain alert to their surroundings. Assistant News Director Jeff Houston phoned other news directors to apprise them of the situation.
What happened the night before to Sheri and Justin was very much on our minds during the hour-long trek to the Blount County Sheriff’s office for a news conference. Thankfully, we filed our report without incident.
What happened to Sheri and Justin was on my mind when I was dispatched to the scene of another shooting Saturday night, August 2. This time, a 19-year old was shot and killed in a residential neighborhood in Birmingham. His body was found on the street, where he had died after being shot twice in the back. We were about 15 minutes away from a 10 PM Saturday night liveshot at the scene, when a number of people filed past our live truck. Family and friends of the victim had gathered at the site where the teenager took his last breath, on a residential street. In a sad and touching scene, the boy’s father lay his body down on the very same spot on where his son had taken his last breath. ABC 33-40 Photographer Jeff Gould spoke first to the family while I remained safely in the live truck. When I saw it was safe to emerge, I approached the family, mindful about using great care and sensitivity.
How do you keep safe as you work the field? What works for you? How could we as journalists prevent an attack and still get the story?  I thought I’d write about what seems to have worked for me over these past 30 years of reporting. How then, can risk be minimized?  Here are my suggestions:
  1. Approach victim’s friends and family members gently, while keeping a respectful distance.
  2. Wait for the individuals to acknowledge your presence before getting too close.  I usually wait until they establish eye contact.
  3. Always express your sympathies, acknowledge their pain, and ask for permission to talk with them further.
  4. If asked to leave, show them respect by honoring their request.  Remember they are grieving and feeling intense pain.  Respect their wishes for privacy.  If you treat them with regard, they are more likely to open up to you at a later date and time.
  5. Speak in a soft and quiet tone.  Aggressive behavior can be misinterpreted.  Remember your safety as a reporter should always come first.  
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, “The world is an increasingly dangerous place for journalists. On average, more than 30 journalists are murdered every year, and the murderers go unpunished in nearly nine of 10 cases. Hundreds of journalists each year are attacked, threatened, or harassed. Many are followed or have their phone calls and Internet communications intercepted. More than 150 are behind bars at any given time, some without being charged with a crime. The whereabouts of at least 35 journalists are unknown. Throughout the profession, journalists face emotional stress whenever they cover stories involving pain or loss of life, from the sexual abuse of children to terrorist attacks against civilians.”

While journalists across the world face grave dangers, in the United States, we fare much better.  However, it’s important to be mindful of your surroundings. So enjoy having a front row seat to life’s most fascinating stories, but please, be careful out there!

Donna Francavilla is a freelance journalist for CBS Radio News and WBMA-TV, ABC 33-40 in Birmingham, Alabama