Preparing For The Worst: Training Journalists For Reporting In War Zones

Aug 6, 2013
Originally published on August 9, 2013 9:14 am

Two passenger vans full of NPR staffers headed up a mountain in May, trying to get to a press conference behind rebel lines. It wasn't going to be easy.

"I was sitting in the passenger seat. We got to the first checkpoint, and we could see that they were drunk and very hostile," correspondent Carrie Kahn said. "I was trying not to make eye contact, but was immediately pulled out of the car." The people at the checkpoint had weapons and things escalated. Then producer Tom Bullock stepped in and diffused the situation, at least for the time being.

"Ultimately Tom bartered some cigarettes and some money," Kahn said. "But then we had to wait for the car behind us."

Fortunately, none of this really happened. It was actually a training exercise simulating real-life scenarios NPR journalists could face while reporting from hot spots.

Preparing for War Zones and Natural Disasters
International correspondents often bring us news from unstable or perilous regions of the world. They face hostile checkpoints, war zones, kidnappings, suicide bombers and landmines. (And that's only the short list). To help them prepare for those kinds of situations, NPR arranged for 22 digital and broadcast staff members to attend a three-day "hostile environment training" course earlier this year.

The course is "part of NPR's overall approach to training and safety and looking after our staff in the field, particularly in many of the increasingly dangerous parts of the world," said David Sweeney, managing editor of news operations.

The training consists of a mix of lectures and hands-on scenarios led by two trainers experienced with hostile environments and knowledgeable about weapons.

For the last 10 years, NPR has sent international-based correspondents and producers to similar sessions. However, they were often held in the UK and attended by only a few NPR journalists at a time. This was the first in-house training program of its kind and was funded, in part, by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Sweeney said.

Sweeney selected a mix of broadcast and digital staff, as well as managers and frontline editors, producers and reporters to attend this training. "The more staff we have with a broad range of skills the better," he said. "It's not just about war zones, but also having the knowledge and skills to work in the aftermath of a hurricane or an earthquake or other natural disaster."

Over the last few years there has been a push to get more people trained, said Edith Chapin, supervising senior editor on the International Desk. "Anybody can find themselves in that kind of situation. Everybody needs to be prepared for this."

In some of the sessions, staffers would take turns role-playing. For example, sometimes they would be the ones trying to go through the checkpoints and sometimes they would be the guards.

Middle East Editor Doug Roberts made the most intimidating checkpoint person, said Kahn, who is based in Mexico City. "Right after the training I had to go through many checkpoints in Honduras, but they weren't as scary as getting through the checkpoints with Doug Roberts," she joked.

Empowering with Strategy and Training
The training also included instruction in advanced first aid, a skill Jason Beaubien, NPR global health and development correspondent, learned the value of first hand.

Shortly after attending a hostile environment training session in 2002, he departed for Zimbabwe and almost immediately found himself in a situation requiring his new skills.

"I was just out on the street and a kid gets run over by a car and is bleeding profusely from his head. Immediately all this stuff that they had just trained us in came back," Beaubien said. "The kid was just lying there. It was like a movie. All these people were around, but no one was going to the body. I went over and applied pressure to the wound. In what felt like 15 – 20 minutes, the Zimbabwean medical response team showed up."

He was thankful that he knew what to do. And that wasn't the last time.

"The next night," Beaubien continued. "I get arrested in Zimbabwe and interrogated."

Beaubien and another reporter were looking into a story about grain silos when they were arrested and accused of spying. They held them all day at a police station and after dark they came into the room with a notebook and wanted to know who it belonged to. It was Beaubien's.

They took him to the police station, down a completely dark hallway and into a room with a chair in the middle. While riding in a taxi earlier in the trip, Beaubien's cab driver had said of president Mugabe, "either by guns or by god he'll be gone soon." Beaubien had scribbled it down and now the Zimbabwean police wanted to know who said it, but he wasn't going to give up that information.

"The strategy they had given was to just not answer it. If they kept pushing I would say I want to talk to the U.S. consulate," he said.

He used what's called the "gray man strategy." Something trainers had walked him through a few weeks before and the goal was to keep the interrogation from actually progressing.

"You want to be the dullest guy in the room. You don't want to be interesting. You don't lie because if you lie you will spiral into more lies and it will be difficult to keep track of what's going on. Don't say anything that's going to incriminate yourself."

Eventually, they let him go.

"I was very thankful at that moment to have a plan that had come out of that training," he said. "It was just very empowering to have some sort of strategy to deal with that because before that I had been a general assignment reporter in Boston and now all of a sudden I'm in Zimbabwe in the middle of the night being interrogated."

Situations like this are precisely the reason why NPR is taking steps to train journalists; this isn't what they were taught in college when preparing to enter this profession.

"Most of us come into this as English majors or Philosophy majors. I mean we have no training in this stuff," Beaubien said. "Soldiers get all this training, but journalists have been just showing up for generations in war zones often without any understanding of how guns work, landmines work or grenades work."

For these international correspondents, who are often the only NPR journalists in an area, there is one final benefit to the group training sessions: talking about shared experiences.

"We all talked about how we got out of tricky situations," Kahn said. "The camaraderie was really great."

Lori Grisham is an editorial researcher in the NPR Ombudsman's Office. She holds an M.A. in journalism from American University. Despite all odds, she remains optimistic the Nationals will make it to the World Series this year.

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