NEW YORK (AP) — In an era when news organizations are shutting foreign bureaus to cut costs, more of the dangerous work of reporting from the world’s trouble spots is falling to freelancers, who often must fend for themselves to get the story out and get out alive.
Preparing freelancers for the danger of reporting from such places as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria is the goal of a four-day first-aid training session where reporters working on their own learn to treat their injuries and take care of their colleagues in combat-like conditions.
The free training provided by Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, with simulated explosions and gunfire, is vital because much of the front-line reporting today is done by freelancers who often work without the protective resources of major news organizations, said Sebastian Junger, a former war reporter and author who founded the organization.
Covering such stories is “a great opportunity for freelancers,” said Junger, best known as the author of “The Perfect Storm.” ”But the risk is that they’re not prepared; they’re not trained, and they go into these very volatile situations without the skills that they need.”
On a recent sweltering day at RISC’s South Bronx facility, freelance reporter Danny Gold put his training into practice under conditions designed for maximum chaos. With sweat dripping down his face, and screams and explosions ringing out around him, he quickly pulled a tourniquet from his pack and wrapped it tightly around the leg of the limp victim in front of him.
“Journalists face a very unique challenge,” said Sawyer Alberi, a flight medic with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who runs the RISC training. “When I’m in wartime, I have a whole military behind me and it doesn’t scare me nearly as much to be there. But while journalists are there and they’re trying to focus on taking pictures, getting the truth and getting a story, the journalists are really in danger.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, recent years have seen record levels of journalists dying from civil unrest and combat situations. Last year 71 journalists were killed in the line of duty, making it the second deadliest year for journalists on record. Of those deaths, 26 were in combat situations.
Additionally, out of 141 journalists killed since 2010, 43 were freelancers. In 2011, about a third of all journalists killed were freelancers. That’s more than twice the average, according to CPJ, which has been keeping detailed records since 1992.
“Freelancers are the ones that are taking the risks without much backup,” said Frank Smyth, CPJ’s senior adviser for journalist security. “That changes the game for them. And they have to take care of themselves in a way, even more so than they ever had to do before.”
Unlike more traditional hostile environment trainings — which anticipate kidnappings, information security, sexual assault and other challenges — RISC training focuses on basic combat first aid: how to apply a tourniquet, stabilize a fracture or pack a wound.
So far, the group has trained 96 journalists.
Freelancers often work without any real guarantee of support. Some will deploy as stringers, with an arrangement to report for an organization on a per-story basis, and large outlets have sometimes come to their aid when a serious threat emerged. Others take the more fraught route of working what’s known as on spec, or without any specific agreement.
Gold saw the nature of reporting from dangerous places change firsthand, freelancing in Turkey, Iraq and most recently Syria.
“The industry is getting a lot tougher than it has been,” he said. “But the only other option is to let things go unreported and I think that’s not feasible.”