The Guardian – Freelancers need help to meet the challenges of conflict zone reporting

This article was first published on: 17/11/2013

Hostile environment conference aims to coach journalists to prepare for assignments – and cope with the aftermath

August 1995 and in the office of Radio 4’s The World at One there were the usual arguments about running orders – whether we should lead on record unemployment levels or the latest Conservative leadership crises – when news came in that silenced us all. Croatian soldiers had killed John Schofield, a reporter on The World Tonight and a friend and colleague. He was 29. His death was to shake up the industry and make organisations like the BBC focus on trying to protect those they sent into war zones. Training courses were set up, news crews were told how to react if fired upon, or taken hostage.

Almost two decades later, significant risks remain. Some would say that, because of the growth in demand from news outlets and the number of freelancers trying to service it, they have actually worsened. On Thursday, the BBC Academy’s College of Journalism event called Working in Hostile Environments will give more than 200 freelance journalists the chance to take part in workshops on preparing for an assignment, battlefield first aid and coping with trauma.

On the discussion panel will be some of the industry’s key advocates on the issue of safety for journalists. Speakers from the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, the International News Safety Institute, and the Rory Peck Trust will talk about how best to protect teams. They will be joined by senior editorial figures from ITN and Sky, and BBC correspondents, including Jeremy Bowen and Caroline Wyatt, will share their expertise.

Bowen, who has been covering war zones for 25 years, says the situation is more dangerous than ever before. “In 1989, I walked through intense fighting in El Salvador, waving a white flag, unprotected by the flak jackets or security teams which are part of today’s war reporting. But now, we are the targets. In some countries, western media are seen as the enemy, they’re attacked or taken hostage. War is always dangerous and unpredictable, but risks for those reporting it have intensified.”

It is not just reporting from areas of conflict that is potentially damaging. Those sent to report on the typhoon in the Philippines will be witnesses to horrific suffering and will be at risk themselves, not just physically from disease, but psychologically too.

After reporting from the Asian tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake, it was many years before I acknowledged that the sights and sounds experienced would not be shaken off. Visions of bloated bodies in Sri Lanka and memories of victims being pulled from the rubble in Kashmir would return, uninvited. As observers of other people’s distress, we often feel we don’t have the right to be emotionally affected ourselves, but there’s little doubt that fear, guilt and exposure to the most visceral of horrors have an impact.

There is support back at base in many organisations, like high-risk teams, safety advisers and psychological help. I am trained as a trauma assessor in a system called TRiM (Trauma Risk Management), which is also used by the military and emergency services as a form of “watchful waiting”. We talk to our colleagues returning from difficult news stories, to see whether they are experiencing flashbacks, drinking heavily or not sleeping; reactions which are normal at first, but, if not addressed, can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some are concerned, though, that with the numbers of freelancers working in hostile environments growing so fast, it’s impossible to provide everyone with the same level of protection.

Stuart Hughes, a BBC producer, had his foot blown off when he stood on a landmine in Iraqi Kurdistan. Every time Stuart puts on his artificial leg, he’s reminded of the risks that can’t be controlled, however good the training. And he’s concerned that some of those who go into unpredictable areas won’t be supported when they return, either – that news has turned into something that cannot be managed effectively. “Our newsgatherers are increasingly freelancers,” he says. “They’re often less experienced than our predecessors and sometimes we don’t even know their names. They’re anonymous uploaders on a YouTube channel or a Facebook page.”

Gavin Rees, from the Dart Centre, agrees. He has met many young journalists who have returned from Afghanistan or Syria overwhelmed by psychological stress and “furious because they did not have an opportunity to develop strategies that could help them look after themselves”. Rees says it is the responsibility of news organisations and individuals to help them develop coping skills before they set out on the story.

Bowen is concerned that too much organisational protection might diminish it. “Health and safety is over-bureaucratised sometimes,” he says. “If you are going to a hostile environment, you have to be responsible for yourself, seek out the local knowledge that’ll help you make the right decisions. That’s the only way you increase your chances of survival.”

On Tuesday the John Schofield Trust, a charity set up to pair experienced journalists with those starting out in their careers, has its annual gathering. As the world’s hostile areas become more dangerous, it is a way of remembering the risks of reporting from them, while also equipping those going there with the tools to help make sure they return safely.

Broadcaster Sian Williams is taking an MSc psychology degree, with a thesis is on post-traumatic stress and growth. For more information on safety, see