What if: Why newsroom safety matters more than ever

May 8, 2019 01:30

Beginning with EMT certification in 1995, and throughout his career in public safety, Chris Post says he “got the best training in the world.”

When he transitioned to the world of journalism and was hired as a newspaper stringer, his first photo editor’s training comprised one piece of advice: “Don’t get arrested.”

That was that, and Post got started as a photojournalist up and down the East Coast.

From emergency services to journalism
Things he’d loved about working in emergency services were features of photojournalism too: Interacting with the public, never knowing what the next call would be, staying on top of quickly changing situations and calm in potentially frightening ones.

Then, four years ago, Post covered a story that further changed the course of his career: protests, some escalating to riots, in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. It was a turbulent time and potentially dangerous story to cover. Without the training he’d received in his public safety career, he says, he would have been at risk.

That story was a catalyst for him to look for ways to unite his public safety and journalism careers, and to help other journalists be as prepared in any situation as he felt.

War correspondents have always had hostile environment training – essentially survival 101 – but domestic reporters have not.

How the rules have changed
But now, “the rules have changed,” and reporters on the front lines locally are at risk, like but from different types of threats than those on the front lines of conflict.

Now, media presence alone can inadvertently escalate a situation, like the time Post, covering a pro-immigration rally, explained to an inquisitive passerby what the gathering was about – and then the person moments later became irate and dangerously close to running him over.

Just like working in emergency services, Post says, journalism will never be hazard-free, but if newsrooms change their perspective and think more like first responders, “We can reduce severity or occurrence.”

Know what might go wrong
In emergency services, Post was assaulted on the job, had guns pulled on him and faced almost daily situations at risk of escalation. But he knew what to do to protect himself and his team in each of those situations, in part because of specific training and also through developing situational awareness to assess and respond to whatever might come up.

Now, he says, “I can’t turn it off.”

He routinely backs more support gear than camera gear.

He knows what might go wrong and how to prepare. When to get away from a scene and how to decontaminate from flood waters. How to recognize symbols and identify how groups might interact. What kind of crowd not to turn your back on and how to park a live truck to be protected from oncoming traffic.

Embrace a culture of safety
Newsrooms can and must “embrace a culture of safety,” too, he says, starting with a top-down responsibility to always put safety first and not send people into something they’re not prepared to manage.

Teams should know what to do to have each other’s backs and keep track of each other, like using phone location sharing features to ensure the assignment desk can track teams easily and unobtrusively.

And all reporters should change the way they think about safety, making even simple adjustments how they prepare and present themselves to mitigate risk. It’s easy to get tunnel vision or to focus on being a friendly public face, but fail to understand and adapt to the tone of a situation.

Start Simple
Safety awareness can help make better journalists, too. Verbal deescalation skills and non-confrontational body language and setups can help not only avoid becoming a target but also get better interviews.

Journalists are too often easy targets in risky situations, and most journalists will never get the level of training Post has accumulated from two decades in public safety.

But every piece of guidance in addition to “don’t get arrested,” and every “what if?” conversation helps keep you and your team safe.
Chris Post is a former first responder turned photojournalist. Chris is the Safety & Security Chair for the National Press Photography Association where he focuses on domestic journalism safety initiatives. 

He will share much more on newsroom safety at Staying Safe in the Streets, September at Excellence in Journalism 2019. Join us to get the tools to prepare your newsroom to ask “what if?”