How prepared is your newsroom for safety?

By Catherine Komp,

NC Local Newsletter Editor

The US score on the 2023 World Press Freedom Index was 72, the lowest it’s been in a decade. While safer than many countries, last year saw the killing of Spectrum News Reporter Dylan Lyons and dozens of other physical threats, including the arrest of reporters covering protests (including these recent arrests in AZ and NYC), the pellet gun shooting of a TV reporter in St. Louis and the assault on a reporter covering a mayoral forum in Franklin, TN in addition to countless incidents of digital harassment and intimation. 

To help newsrooms better respond to these issues, the International Women’s Media Foundation took a decade of experience overseas and brought its safety trainings to the US. With this year’s election, they’re planning to visit swing states, including North Carolina, to offer their programs to local newsrooms.

The NC Local News Workshop is working with IWMF to organize a training here — more details on that soon. In the meantime, we chatted with IWMF Deputy Executive Director Nadine Hoffman to learn more about the need for safety policies, practices and funding in US newsrooms. Our conversation had been edited for length and clarity. 

NC Local: What’s in store for your 2024 trainings in the US? 

Nadine Hoffman: This coming year, we’re providing both a mix of in person training that will be targeted to things like legal rights, civil unrest and digital threats, but also making available this suite of holistic support services we can offer. That includes things like one on one consultations with a newsroom or with an individual journalist who needs some immediate support or emergency assistance. Therapy grants have been actually one of the biggest services we’ve been offering to journalists in the US. And [the trainings] are really just to establish new relationships across news networks that maybe we haven’t been as actively collaborating with in the past. 

You started this work in the US in 2019 before we had the rise of assaults against journalists during the racial justice protests of 2020. The US has also crept down on the World Press Freedom Index. How have threats to journalists here changed over the past few years?  

I do think it is certainly a more dangerous time for journalists globally, but including journalists working in the US. Some of that is related to the context of the US. For example, we know that journalists here are more likely to encounter active shooting situations, and that’s all Americans, right? But specifically, journalists would be sent out to cover those events and tragedies when they occur.

But then we also see a proliferation of white supremacist groups and extremist groups of all kinds that have specifically targeted journalists and one of their favorite tactics has been doxing journalists who investigate their activities. This starts as a digital threat that can quickly lead to a physical threat or violence when someone shows up at your door because of something you reported. That’s something we’ve seen as a growing threat. 

Also the general context of civil unrest. You mentioned the racial justice protests that happened in 2020, and so certainly we saw police interacting with journalists, sometimes arresting journalists, sometimes targeting journalists. So local law enforcement can be a threat depending on the context.  

And then of course during the Trump administration, we also heard a lot of rhetoric coming from that administration about the media being enemies of the people, creating this climate that increases distrust of journalists and can then lead to an environment where they are more likely to be attacked. 

What’s your assessment of how well US newsrooms are prepared to support the safety of their staff or “the duty of care” as IWMF describes it?  

I would say it’s all over the place. Certainly you have major national newsrooms who have invested heavily in the safety of their journalists, and they have the resources to do so. I also have seen through our own News Safety Cohort with 16 newsrooms, most of them are in the US and most of them are pretty small, independent or investigative outfits, where there’s a lot of concern and a proactivity on behalf of the leaders and staff wanting to create better policies and better plans, but a real shortage of the resources necessary to do it right.  

And then there are also newsrooms that I don’t think have fully grappled with some of these issues, particularly around digital safety and the online violence side of it. I think that it’s easier to get your head around, “we need to get the flak jackets and the helmets if we’re sending journalists into a specific civil unrest situation.” In some contexts, we’ve seen newsroom leadership not really getting the seriousness or the impact of the online violence piece because they themselves haven’t experienced it and they’re also not seeing how that can link to a physical threat. 

So I do think there’s still education there, but we’re getting tons of interest from small local newsrooms that would really like to have us come and train their journalists.

Could you talk a little bit about the unique threats that women and LGBTQ+ journalists face? 

One of the things about the safety training we do is it is really identity informed. So using identity specifically when you’re doing risk assessments and having a real frank discussion with your editor, having that trust, hopefully to be able to have that discussion about how multiple layers of identity can impact your profile and your risk in any situation. Whether that’s gender, whether you’re part of the LGBTQI community, journalists of color, we know all of those groups are targeted specifically for online violence at much higher rates than their male peers, so they are more vulnerable in that respect. 

But also, of course, there are unique threats in the physical realm as well. In a larger context, I think what we’ve seen globally has been this pushback, a pushback on women’s rights and a rise in misogynistic rhetoric, both from political leaders and in a lot of countries also in terms of laws and legislation that’s being passed.

Obviously that also affects, in the US, transgender folks and LGBTQ communities as well so those societal forces also have an impact on journalists. When we are focusing on safety, we’re focusing on trying to build protocols that will actually serve the most targeted or vulnerable groups in the newsroom, but that don’t do that at the cost of denying people assignments. 

That’s something we have also seen where an editor will be like, “Well, I just think that’s too dangerous to send you out there.” And that’s not what we want to happen. We want there to be a frank discussion of “Does this mean that you should be going with somebody else?” We shouldn’t be sending folks out by themselves to a political rally that could become hostile, that could lead to somebody following you back to your car and then they have your license plate and now they know where you live.

So really at a practical level, thinking through what measures can improve safety. We never get rid of the risk, right?

Are there other kinds of specific concerns that you all have, or that you’ll address through the trainings tied to this year’s elections?

Certainly preparing for the run up so covering rallies, protests, polling sites, being prepared for those specific contexts. But then also preparing for the outcome of the election, which we obviously don’t know if there will be wider civil unrest. I think there’s sort of a balance we want to strike between not being alarmist, but also being really, clear eyed about possible scenarios. We would rather have people over prepared for something that doesn’t happen than not prepared.

Could you share a bit more about what participants can expect from these trainings?

We’re aiming to make it pretty interactive so that instead of a lecture style that we would build in some scenarios and exercises. For example, providing a couple of scenarios and having journalists and editors do the risk assessment and how they would plan, based on the risk assessment, to execute the assignment.

Some of our trainings include self defense. We also focus on things like “Know your rights.” Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has also come out on some of our trainings in the past, and we’re hoping they will come out this year as well to give some basic tips. If you are arrested, if you have any police interaction, here’s what you need to know as a journalist in your state. So really practical things like that. 

We also probably will have some basic digital safety. That’s a little hard to squeeze in when we’re not doing the full hostile environment training, but I think it is really important, just to have that digital hygiene in place, particularly depending on what folks are going to be covering this year.

We’ll also want to make sure we’re pointing to mental health resources.  I know that burnout is a really big concern, especially for small newsrooms and going into an election cycle that can be a huge stress and we want to make sure that people know what resources are there for them.

How should newsrooms budget for the safety of staff and freelancers? Should there be a standing line item in annual budgets?

There really should be. And that includes a couple of different layers. That includes the digital safety side of it. One thing that we recommend is that people are using a service like Delete Me, so that their journalists’ personal data is getting scrubbed from those data broker sites. That subscription is not hugely expensive, but it’s also like $200 or $300 a year. There’s an effort now with the folks at INN to get free licenses. So that’s like a basic thing, we have that in place, newsrooms should have that in place. 

And then obviously there’s the basic protective gear that you need to have if you’re sending people to protests where people might be armed and determining what would be appropriate, but also making sure that they have gear in different sizes. For example, during the last election, we were doing grants for personal protective equipment.  And we were getting calls from women journalists whose newsrooms only had XL flak jackets and they were not going to be protected by wearing them, but that is what was being offered. 

We also see a lot of new nonprofit newsrooms coming up and they’re often relying on donors, on journalism philanthropy. So I believe there is a case to be made here that if philanthropy is going to be a major funder of nonprofit news, they also should be including the priority of keeping their journalists safe. There’s a huge push around local journalism philanthropy right now. Everybody wants to save local journalism, but they have to also think about protecting the journalists who are doing that journalism. 

Is there something that I haven’t asked you about that you want to share? 

I would just say there’s not any one organization that’s going to be able to tackle this issue at scale. And there is really an ecosystem of press freedom organizations that are focused on journalist safety and increasingly on journalist safety in the US. We’re doing this a lot of time in collaboration with others, I mentioned the Reporters Committee, but we also work closely with CPJ, we’ve worked a lot with Pen America over the years. So just to say, there are a lot of people thinking about this and putting a lot of effort into trying to support. But I do think we have an issue of the resources to really scale it and how that gets done, if that’s even something that philanthropy can tackle. Where do you put it in the budget and how does it figure in our priorities for the newsrooms? 


➡️ Get your safety planning started with these resources and templates from IWMF.

➡️ RSF and RJI launch US State Press Freedom Index to rate the press freedom records of all US states and territories. RSF is looking for journalists to join in the project from all 50 states and U.S. territories to serve as local respondents on press freedom. If you are interested in being a part of this project, please fill out this form.

➡️ New Study: Best & Worst States for Journalists to Work and Live (NC is ranked 16)

➡️ Three years on, little justice for press assaulted on Jan. 6

NC Local News Workshop