Resources for Freelance Journalists in Conflict Zones

Conflict reporters play an important role in our understanding of the world, but it can be dangerous and difficult work.

A reporter visits the ransacked U.S. embassy in Tripoli during the Libyan civil war. (AP)

I don't know the first thing about conflict reporting. The closest I've ever come was covering a clash between protesters and riot police in Cairo, which I found difficult and disorienting enough to know that it was not for me. My work takes place behind a computer monitor, underneath an air conditioning vent, and never more than 20 feet from a coffee maker.

But I am deeply reliant on actual conflict reporters, and not just for my work. So is anyone who cares about what's happening in the world, votes in elections, knows someone in the military, or works in an industry with interests abroad. I have also been very lucky in that my work has brought me into frequent contact with conflict reporters, affording me a front-row view of the bravery, curiosity, and sense of purpose that sends them hurtling into the places where they are needed most.

So I was particularly upset when Austin Tice, a 31-year-old freelance reporter who had landed in Syria in May, went missing. Tice, who I have not worked with, has not been heard from in over a month. The State Department is working through the miraculously still-open Czech embassy there to find him, but has been unable to confirm reports that he is held by the Syrian government.

"Please quit telling me to be safe," Tice wrote on his Facebook page in late July, attempting to explain the "pioneering spirit" that he said had led him into Syria, though he had no experience reporting abroad or with the Arab world. "And look, if you still don't get it, go read Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. That book explains it all better than I ever could," he concluded, referencing the 1940 novel about a Montanan who dies fighting in the Spanish civil war.

Conflict zones are dangerous, Syria particularly. I have no way to judge whether Tice had the appropriate skills or knowledge to venture into Syria, partly because I don't know Tice and partly because I am ignorant of what it takes to report from inside a war. But one thing I have noticed in two years of working with freelance reporters is that, with the state of the media industry what it is, a number of young journalists are forging ahead into conflict zones with little more than a camera and a sense of adventure. That's deeply admirable, but it also risks allowing another degree of danger into an endeavor that already has plenty.

"Most of the risks are being run by freelancers," Sebastian Junger told the Huffington Post recently in explaining why he was starting an organization to teach reporters emergency first aid. "People really in the meat grinder of the front lines are not, for the most part, insured or salaried network correspondents. They're young freelancers."

I asked some experienced freelance conflict reporters what advice they might have for newcomers to the work, what links or resources they might point them toward. Here are their suggestions for staying safe. Again, I have no idea if any of this information would have helped Tice; for all I know, he'd done all of it. And none of this can make a place like Syria truly safe. But if you are considering reporting from a conflict zone as a freelancer or know someone who is, it could be worth your time to at least acquaint yourself with this information and to consider getting the appropriate training. Please do not consider it to be comprehensive; it's just a starting point.

  • The Rory Peck Trust: The U.K. organization, "dedicated to the safety and welfare of freelance newsgatherers and their families around the world," offers "hostile environment training" for reporting from conflict zones. The training courses are highly regarded. The organization offers "bursaries" to journalists who need help paying for the training. They also offer "direct assistance" to freelancers and their families, including grants, help landing assignments, and "practical advice, information, and support for freelancers or their families in crisis."
  • Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC): Started by Sebastian Junger in the memory of journalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed covering Libya's civil war last year, RISC offers classes in emergency medical treatment. Hetherington, like other journalists since him, died in part because he was wounded far from a hospital, and though the people around him tried their best to help, no one had the appropriate medical training to stop the bleeding, which might have saved his life. RISC training is designed to help reduce this risk. Courses are offered free of cost to experienced freelance conflict reporters.
  • 3-Day Columbia Class, "Reporting Safely in Crisis Zones": This new class at Columbia's prestigious graduate school in journalism emphasizes "prevention of harm" and "how to avoid unnecessary peril, with careful preparations before, during, and after assignments." The New York class is expensive, at $695, but scholarships are available for freelancers. Judith Matloff, who has worked both as a freelance and staff reporter, teaches. The next class is October 19 to 21.
  • Buy Insurance: One option is the Reporters Without Borders plan, which is designed with freelance reporters in mind. It is very cheap and covers emergency medical care. You may wish to consider kidnapping insurance.
  • Get the Equipment: Wear a helmet and a kevlar jacket. Carry a medical kit. A reporter who asked to remain anonymous says that kevlar is particularly cheap in Israel. Do be careful about getting an Israeli stamp on your passport, as some Middle Eastern countries will not allow you admittance if you do.
  • Know the Dangers: "The things you should know before going into any hot war zone like Syria include the types, uses, and effects of various weapons (will bullets go through walls? What do single shots mean, versus long bursts?); the names, goals, and organizational structures of the people who you're likely to meet; and a way to get out," Graeme Wood told me in an email. 
  • Keep Others Informed of Your Movements: Also from Graeme: "You should also have someone far away and someone close by both looking over your shoulder. If I'm going on a dangerous road, with chance of abduction or whatever, I'll tell someone I trust locally and someone I trust far away, and promise to check in within a couple hours of arrival. If I ever get abducted on an Iraqi road, people will be aware that something is amiss (and that I'll probably miss my next deadline) within a few hours."
  • Have a Plan: Don't just dive into the front line for the sake of being at the front line. There's rarely much to be learned there. If you have a story to report that requires going somewhere dangerous and you're confident that the risk is acceptable, just go to the extent that it's necessary for your story, and then get out. Have your own dedicated transportion, both there and back, and make all the necessary arrangement ahead of time.
  • Read More: This information is just a starting point. Reporters Without Borders has produced a much better informed, and more informative, practical guide for journalists. It's 100 pages and makes for good airplane reading.

Unless some enormous news event happens in the next few hours (Joseph Kony invades the Diaoyu Islands? Vladimir Putin retires the presidency to start a league of cape-wearing crime fighters?), this may be my last post at after four great years of working here. I hope it may in some small way give back to the class of foreign reporters I owe so much to and have so long admired.