How to prepare for high-risk reporting situations

Demonstrators burn the Sandinista radio station during clashes with riot police during a protest against Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega's government in Managua, Nicaragua May 30, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

Demonstrators burn the Sandinista radio station during clashes with riot police during a protest against Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega's government in Managua, Nicaragua May 30, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

4th October 2022

Before the 2018 riots in Nicaragua, the need for emergency response protocols never crossed my mind as a journalist. 

El Nuevo Diario, one of the most important newspapers in Nicaragua, declared bankruptcy soon after the start of the riots. La Prensa, its competition, had fired more than 200 employees and was raided by police agents, who confiscated equipment and closed the facilities. Social media was awash with claims of assault, but in a sea of government-controlled narrative and unverified social content, we were operating in a fog of insecurity and misinformation. 

Néstor Arce found himself in the crossfire while covering the riots.“They attacked me three times in one night, and beat other journalists from other media,” he said. One journalist was killed in the violence. What started as a mild demonstration by young students, spiralled into a violent movement of protests that has spanned almost four years and has resulted in hundreds of deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. 

My newsroom put together a small document where we collected the names of sources we could trust in the field. As the mayhem swirled, I wished a manual for emergencies existed. 

When I arrived at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism three years later, I wanted to lay the groundwork for such a manual. I spoke to journalists, fact-checkers, trainers and activists who have extensive experience in different aspects of news coverage in high-risk situations. 

What became clear is that no comprehensive emergency manual can ever exist in print: emergencies are too fluid in nature to plan for perfectly. But every newsroom can put emergency preparedness basics in place – and should.

Emergency preparedness can be divided into three procedural phases: preparation, response, and post-response.

The preparation phase takes place long before the emergency. It involves gathering resources – human, equipment, and informational – in a way that everyone on your time can access.

Human resources include staff contact information and addresses, as well as staff emergency contacts. Preparation involves assigning roles and responsibilities ahead of time. It also includes sources, contacts and guides on the ground. 

Equipment resources might include: power banks, satellite phones, kevlar vests and helmets – stored centrally, maintained and accessible to all. Informational resources include: legal, expert contacts, and online resources. 

Preparation should involve analysis and mitigation of potential risks. Role-playing responses may be useful. Establishing what principles will guide your response in an emergency is also crucial. 

The response phase involves putting your plans into motion. Assess your risk analysis against the current circumstances and adapt as necessary. Assess human resources and affirm roles and responsibilities, factoring in down time for recovery by assigning shifts where possible. Assess physical and informational resources, and distribute them as needed. 

The post-response phase involves assessing the successes and failures of your response and adapting your plans and resources to respond more effectively in the next emergency. It also involves assessing the mental health impact to staff, and assigning resources or recovery time as needed.

Emergency response preparation should be both institutional (what the newsroom prepares) and individual (how the journalist prepares). Both institutional and individual responses should be encouraged and guided by newsroom leaders.

The preparation stage is the most complex, and yields the best results in the response and post-response phase. As Fernanda Kobelinsky, editor of Infobae América in Argentina, puts it: don’t neglect the technical preparedness for the act of on-the-ground journalism. “If you can't send your story later, it doesn't make any [difference] that you’ve been there.”

Don’t leave it too late to ask questions like: What internet connection are you going to use? Where will you save the videos, audios or photos that you collect? Is the equipment charged? Do you have extra batteries?

Emergency preparedness doesn’t just involve technical, practical questions, but it requires principled discussion and documentation to guide decision making in the moment. What is your mission statement and what values does your journalism want to uphold – how will this guide you on the ground?

What happens when the emergency isn’t at home?

Not all emergencies – whether environmental, political or technological – will happen on home ground. Reporters travelling to report in foreign territory need specialist preparedness training. 

Kobelinsky suggests always having documentation with you and having digital backup of that documentation. Have emergency contact numbers (editor, lawyer, other) in writing, in case your cell phone is lost or stolen. Know where the consulate of your country is, and have their contact telephone numbers. 

“When I went to Venezuela for the first time, the first thing I did was see a colleague who helped me organise [and] gave me contacts,” said Kobelinsky. “Having a local contact is key, that is the person who helps you understand if a situation is viable. It’s no use for me to go to the most dangerous neighbourhood in Latin America if I can’t [get back out] because I won’t be able to tell the story.”

Remember to adapt your preparedness to the situation on the ground: wearing a flak-jacket that says press may provide additional security in one place and invite attacks in another. 

Networks save lives

Creating networks of local journalists who can share information and assist in verification is crucial in any disaster situation. There is a time for competition, and emergencies are not that time. 

Paul Myles, editorial director of On Our Radar said: “We found that by creating an empowered and trusted network, we were able to get a level of access and a level of authenticity in our reports.”

It is essential to listen directly to those most affected in the community, he said. How do they perceive the crisis? What was the emotional impact? What was the social impact? What was the economic impact? “By having a network of trained and reliable reporters, we were able to cover [the 2014 Ebola] crisis in a way that many other media could not,” said Myles. That network carried through to reporting on malaria and COVID-19, too. “It was a good example of how, if you leave behind the skills and confidence in the kind of basic reporting techniques, you can continue to collaborate with these communities long after an initial journey.”

I gathered more practical lessons from those I spoke to, and divided them into Environmental and Political emergency advice. The full details are in the PDF below for those who want to read more. For those who prefer a summary, I recommend bookmarking the following tools and resources: 

PPE and risk analysis

Resources for secure coverage:

Verification resources

Resources for women journalists

Resources for internet outages