After Ferguson, re-focus on reporter safety

judithsmelser.com

As I was reading today’s article in Current about St. Louis Public Radio’s coverage of the Ferguson protests, I was struck by this line about the experience of reporters Durrie Bouscaren and Stephanie Lecci:

“ … they began fearing for their safety, noticing that while they were dressed in everyday clothes, other reporters and photographers covering the scene wore bulletproof vests and riot helmets.”

They’re not the only ones.  

This gets a little personal for me because my husband was in Ferguson too, sent into a cloud of tear gas with nothing but his video camera and the clothes on his back.  He ended up buying swimming goggles at Target before his second night on the streets.  I was furious.

It also gets personal for a very different reason, as I think of the times when, as a news director, I sent reporters out to cover potentially life-threatening situations – floods, fires, protests,  etc.  – without the proper protection.  Now I feel guilty.

Maybe it’s time to stop feeling angry and guilty and take a new, hard look at how news organizations prepare for crises – not just how we cover them, but how we keep our journalists safe in the process.

Breaking News: Great Expectations

This question is especially salient for local public media newsrooms, since many of them have shifted their thinking about breaking news.  

Before 9/11, the philosophy tended toward the idea that “we don’t break news – we put it back together.”  That was true even at the network level.

After the terrorist attacks, NPR made a concerted effort to expand and improve its coverage of significant breaking news events. In doing so, it raised the bar for local public media operations.  

Audiences across the country have come to rely on their public stations, not as “alternatives,” but as primary news sources. They now expect more than just second- and third-day analysis stories; if something big happens in their community or their world, they want to know about it, on air and online, as soon as it happens.

Journalist Safety: Part of the Equation?

Many local public media newsrooms are in the process of adapting to that shift in expectations.

Certainly, it has major implications for crisis coverage planning, workflow, reporter assignments, and station technology.  Many of those topics have been discussed at length in training sessions and at public media conferences over the years.

But the shift also has implications for reporter safety and the investments stations need to make to ensure it.  Too often, that piece of the puzzle simply isn’t part of the conversation.

Local Stations Need to Catch Up

NPR requires its journalists covering foreign conflicts to undergo hazard training.  The network equips reporters with protective gear if they’re going into potentially dangerous situations.  

Those types of things simply aren’t in the playbook for many local stations.

If we’re going to expect our journalists to report from the scenes of natural disasters, shouldn’t we be sending them to training sessions with emergency personnel on how to avoid the dangers associated with places like flood and fire zones?  

If we’re going to send journalists to cover potentially volatile events, shouldn’t we invest in things like bulletproof vests and protective eye gear, just as we outfit them with recorders and cameras?

I’m not saying that no local stations do this right now, but I don’t think anyone could argue that it’s a fully ingrained part of the landscape.  That’s what needs to change.

Ferguson brought the issue of domestic journalists’ safety into very sharp focus.  Let’s shine a light on it and make it a prominent part of the crisis coverage conversation going forward.

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After Ferguson, re-focus on reporter safety

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