As COVID-19 has locked down the country, the question of what is safe to report on is also in question. This has re-ignited a long running debate in the field: how do journalists stay safe when reporting in crisis situations?
The most important way that most would cite to stay safe is being prepared. What journalists do prior to being in crisis situations is important, BU Associate Professor Fred Bayles said in Peter Smith’s film Staying Safe.
“Prepare yourself before something happens,” Bayles said. “All of the emergency personnel do a lot of training and a lot of drilling on this, so there is no excuse not to take part in that or at least observe it.”
When it comes to reporting on COVID-19, the Global Investigative Journalism Network suggests wearing gloves and protective gear, never setting down equipment, staying away from wet markets and animals and making sure to wash hands and disinfect equipment as frequently as possible.
Outside of preparation, there are many other steps that journalists can take to stay safe. Traveling with a colleague or a friend can reduce risk, photographer Mary Knox Miller said. She emphasized that one can often rely on other journalists on the scene for guidance and support.
The way that journalists conduct themselves on location is also important for their safety. Bayles continued that journalists must always be aware of their surroundings and avoid being oblivious.
“You can become focused on the person you are interviewing or the scene you are observing,” Bayles said. “In the military that’s called target fixation. You want to continually look around you. If your head were on a 360 degree swivel that would be terrific.”
The placement of a journalist is also important for staying safe. Shooting out of the reach of conflict or danger is better, BU Associate Professor Susan Walker said.
“Look for a place to shoot that would get better shots but be away,” Walker said. “Look to get up. Up is good.”
Many also stressed the importance of staying away from those who are responding on the scene. As journalists, it is important to understand one’s place in a conflict zone and be aware of potential hazards. Staying out of the way of first responders and respecting boundaries can help ensure everyone’s safety, Boston Fire Spokesman Steve MacDonald said.
Journalists have tough jobs in crisis situations. They have to choose whether an interview or a photograph is worth potential danger. When advising students on how best to make this choice, Boston Globe Staff Reporter John Tlumacki emphasized being rational.
“You always have to be on guard,” Tlumacki said. “[Take] chances that are reasonable chances and [try] to get the best photo possible.”