Magazine article American Journalism Review

Preparing for Battle: American News Organizations Lag Behind Some of Their European Counterparts When It Comes to Providing Survival Training and Drafting Safety Guidelines for War Correspondents. A Group of Journalists Is Pushing to Narrow the Gap

Magazine article American Journalism Review

Preparing for Battle: American News Organizations Lag Behind Some of Their European Counterparts When It Comes to Providing Survival Training and Drafting Safety Guidelines for War Correspondents. A Group of Journalists Is Pushing to Narrow the Gap

Article excerpt

Photojournalist Yannis Behrakis knows it was sheer luck that the hail of bullets didn't tear into his body as rebels sprang out of the bush, firing wildly. Within seconds, two journalists traveling with him in a hellhole known as Rogberi Junction in war-ravaged Sierra Leone were dead.

Behrakis found himself trapped in a real-life version of Gene Hackman's gripping movie "Behind Enemy Lines." Only this time, the prey being hunted was a seasoned Reuters war photographer instead of a highly skilled American fighter pilot downed in Bosnia.

For three tortuous hours, the photojournalist eluded the gunmen, smearing himself with dirt and leaves to blend into the thick bush. He reasoned that if there were booby traps or antipersonnel mines--common weapons in the vicious civil war--they most likely would be planted along jungle paths frequented by humans. Behrakis opted for more difficult routes as gunfire erupted around him.

Elements of the grueling hostile-environment training he'd had two years earlier kicked in. "It saved my life," Behrakis later wrote to the former British Royal Marine commando who engineered the course.

Reuters TV cameraman Mark Chisholm, who also survived the attack and eluded capture in the bush, echoed that sentiment. "Nothing could have prevented the ambush from happening," Chisholm said in the aftermath. But when they were on the run, "The course saved our lives."

Two noted war correspondents, reporter Kurt Schork of Reuters, a Washington, D.C., native, and Miguel Gil Moreno, a Spanish cameraman with the Associated Press, were killed on a pockmarked red-dirt road that government soldiers had deemed safe as the journalists drove past front lines toward a remote diamond mine. Four of their military escorts died with them (see Free Press, July 2000).

Behrakis and Chisholm were quick to say that without their training the toll easily could have been four journalists dead on May 24,2000.

Yet, the kind of safety instruction the two journalists credit with helping them avoid capture has been an afterthought for most news organizations. The notion of survival skills and safety guidelines has been slow to catch on with top media managers in the United States. In Europe, the BBC, ITN and Reuters mandate training for foreign correspondents. It has taken an era of international terrorism to spark a stronger push on the home front.

The murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan was a grisly wake-up call (see "Dangerous Journalism," April). So was the declaration from al Qaeda terrorists that it is a religious duty to kill Americans.

How do news operations continue their commitment to front-line coverage and reduce risks to their journalists in the field at the same time?

A small global network of media leaders and practitioners--some who themselves have been held hostage, imprisoned or attacked--has kept safety issues on the front burner at conferences and international forums. CNN, with 300 correspondents roaming the globe at any given time, has taken the lead, along with the BBC, in pushing for the development of industry standards.

Chris Cramer, president of CNN's International Networks, calls it "criminal" and "a disgrace to the profession" when editors send staff into harm's way without proper training, protective gear or clear guidelines on how far to push into danger zones in pursuit of a photograph or story.

"There are media organizations who refuse to confront the issue, refuse to spend the money on keeping their staff safe. My message to them is quite simple: They should be ashamed of themselves," says Cramer, who began pitching the notion of hostile-environment training while with the BBC in the 1990s.

"Whether we like it or not, we are now seen as legitimate targets by an increasing number of individuals and factions around the world. …

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