Risk assessments can make journalism safer

September 5, 2023
People and journalists react as police fire tear gas from Causeway Bay MTR station during clashes with pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong on September 8, 2019. - Riot police on September 8 chased groups of hardcore protesters who blocked roads, vandalised nearby subway stations and set makeshift barricades on fire as the evening set in, while an earlier main daytime rally saw pro-democracy activists marching to the United States consulate in Hong Kong in a bid to ramp up international pressure on Beijing following three months of huge and sometimes violent protests. (Photo by Philip FONG / AFP) (Photo credit should read PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)

Each year, as part of orientation, the hundred or so incoming students at the Newmark J-school hit the streets of New York City to ask people what they think about a controversial topic. Street reporting is of course an essential journalistic skill, and the exercise is intended to get students comfortable talking to strangers and writing on deadline. While reporting in the United States is not usually dangerous, the climate has changed in recent years. Journalists are more likely to encounter hostility or to be denounced as “fake news.” We wanted to make sure our students were prepared.

And so for the first time, we trained our students to conduct a risk assessment. Along with Sara Rafsky, an information security analyst at the New York Times, and Yemile Bucay, who worked on the safety team at BuzzFeed, we asked students to consider what could go wrong in the course of their reporting.

We also encouraged them to come up with mitigation strategies. Students suggested working in teams, setting up WhatsApp chats so they could keep in touch, thinking carefully about how to pose questions, and taking into account their identities before they head out on the streets. How might the people they are interviewing perceive them, and how could they prepare for the reactions? 

Since joining the Newmark School last winter as the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative, I’ve been thinking about how to teach safety. I have already come to believe that risk assessment is a key tool that can have a transformative impact across the profession. 

I first became aware of risk assessments in 2014 following the murder of James Foley and Steven Sotloff by ISIS militants in Syria, when I was the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Driven by the Foley Foundation and a new organization called the ACOS Alliance (ACOS stands for A Culture of Safety), news organizations began to take their obligations to their reporters more seriously, particularly freelance reporters and support staff. Many expanded HEFAT courses—Hostile Environment and First Aid Training—and instituted risk assessments more broadly.  

But as risks to journalists became more generalized—including online harassment and coverage of civil unrest in the US—the tools began to evolve. The risk assessment forms that journalists were required to complete were burdensome, tedious, and often not responsive to the realities of everyday reporting. Many journalists viewed them as bureaucratic exercises that were quickly put in a drawer.

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Some media companies were also outsourcing risk assessments to private security firms, a practice that expanded after 9/11, according to Jason Reich, vice president of safety and security at the Times. In fact, private security firms were often repackaging journalists’ own field reporting and feeding it back to news organizations. This gave Reich an idea. 

“Maybe we can peel back the curtain,” said Reich, speaking about his efforts to bring risk assessments into the newsroom. “Let me give you insights into how big corporate security teams are doing this thing, and maybe you can do it yourself. Or better yet, maybe we can do it together.” 

In fact, when I recently attended, as a guest, the Times’ weeklong security training workshop—which Reich calls ART School for Adversarial Reporting Training—I saw that risk assessments are at the very center of his approach. He believes that every assignment should begin with a brief check-in between the editor and the reporting team about risk. This can become a more structured conversation in which the reporters and editors discuss their assets (what they are trying to protect) and their adversaries (who they are trying to protect it from) along with the likelihood of things going wrong. Once that simple process is complete, the team can put in place mitigation strategies.

The range of journalists attending ART School showed just how pervasive threats have become. There were the kinds of attendees I expected to see, experienced conflict reporters and journalists who covered the January 6 Capitol riot among them. But there were also reporters who cover arts, culture, and fashion and have endured virulent online harassment. 

Reich’s view—and the view of many security professionals with whom I have spoken—is that risk is everywhere and managing it has become part of the job in every newsroom. Harlo Holmes, a leading expert on digital security at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told me that the current approach to risk assessment borrows heavily from methods developed by computer scientists to model and manage threats. While more sophisticated and refined approaches are essential for complex risk, the entry point is quite low. A basic risk assessment, Holmes explained, “is really intuitive because it’s something we do already as part of our everyday life. It can even be fun.” 

What I like about the process is that it is easy to scale, adapt, and universalize. It can function in any newsroom, as I saw this summer when I traveled to India as part of the US Visitors Program, run by the State Department. I spoke about safety at journalism schools throughout the country and met with newsroom leaders. What struck me was how quickly they grasped the value of a risk assessment, and how they recognized its utility in a low-resourced environment. 

The same reality applies in the United States, where the media is in flux. Smaller nonprofit news organizations are cropping up around the country, some doing tremendous work with just a small team of reporters. Meanwhile, larger news organizations are tightening belts and some are unfortunately making cuts to their security teams. 

But every news organization, no matter its size and budget, can implement a safety check-in and risk assessment as part of its assigning process. Once a specific risk is identified, there are a wide range of specialized resources that journalists and news organizations can draw on—for responding to online harassment, covering conflict, dealing with legal threats, or managing stress and trauma

During the quarter-century I spent at CPJ, I got the calls when things went wrong. In my new role, I see risk assessments as a powerful tool that can literally save lives. HEFAT training remains critical for journalists covering conflict, but the nature of risk today means that every journalist should know the basics of how to stay safe. This is an unfortunate situation, but it’s also an opportunity to change the culture. By joining forces and making risk assessments part of the assigning process, we can make journalism safer.  

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.