Filing from the warzone - the dangers of conflict reporting

Conflict reporting has always been the most dangerous branch of journalism - but in the changing political landscape of recent years, has it become even more so?

New Statesman
A photojournalist runs for cover from tear gas fired by Egyptian security forces during clashes with protesters in Cairo, February 2012. (Photo credit: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite what the response to the Leveson inquiry may have lead us to believe, one of the biggest threats to press freedom today remains violence against journalists. Already eleven journalists have been wounded and three killed in the Gaza area just two weeks on from Israel’s launch of "Operation Pillar of Defence". These harrowing statistics, brought to light by a Reporters Without Borders report, once again bring home the incredible risks taken by this most dangerous division of journalism. But in an age of ever-changing media and technologies - has conflicting reporting become safer or less so?

“When you’re looking at Gaza, you’re looking at an incredibly densely populated place, a place that really has no front line… you don’t know where the next attack is going to come from” notes Sarah Topol, a freelance journalist who was the 2012 recipient of the Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism, speaking at City University’s panel discussion on the 29 November. An experienced journalist who has reported widely during the Arab Springs uprisings, she notes that the Israel-Palestine conflict is notoriously unsafe for reporters. In Gaza she explains, “ I felt like I was operating much more on a whim, or based on luck, because you just weren’t sure were the Israelis were going to hit next”.  

As a freelancer, Topol was in a unique position being entirely responsible for her own safety, with no backing from a news organisation or employer. What measures can a journalist take to minimise risks in such circumstances? The first, non-negotiable step is to ensure you provide your own, extensive security equipment, she believes; “If you’re not going to invest in yourself, then no news organisation should invest in you” For Topol, the minimum includes buying her own insurance, flak jackets, gas masks, and providing these for translators working alongside her and insisting they wear them as well., “If you want to do it, then you have to do it responsibly because you bring everyone you know into the war zone with you, your family, your friends”.

Big organisations, of course, have more resources to devote specifically to security measures. Sarah Whitehead, head of International News at Sky, explains that personal safety is always top of the agenda for Sky reports in conflict areas. As well as extensive equipment and protective clothing, her journalists are trained medically and undergo psychological training to be able to “spot the first signs of stress”. Additionally, she often deploys security advisors alongside her journalistic teams as they head into conflict zones. They can be an invaluable asset, understanding as they do, military strategies and equipment, often having knowledge of the local area and extensive medical training which can be life-saving in areas where doctors and hospitals are simply inaccessible. However, not every conflict report necessitates a security advisor, “they are brilliant people to have in the right circumstances but they are passengers in the wrong ones”.

City University's 'Reporting on Conflict' panel discussion, 29th November 2012. From right to left - Sarah Whitehead, Prof. Howard Tumber, Sarah Topol, James Rodgers, Ibrahim Adwan. (Photo credit: Brianne O'Brien)

Recent conflicts – notably those connected with the Arab Spring – have given rise to a prominent new type of reporting – the civilian journalist. “An awful lot of the stuff we’re doing at the moment on Syria comes that way” agrees Whitehead. Of course, this has brought problems of its own. How, after all is it possible to verify accurately the footage obtained from ground-level footage from citizen journalists?

“It’s a whole range of really basic journalism skills” she explains. Sky have their own desk dedicated to verifying footage, “we’re looking at where its come from, what it looks like, what we know about that area – weather, season, all those really basic checks, and then we try to find the people who posted it. And we do it as rigorously as we can. But we do still say – very frustratingly, and very annoyingly I’m sure for people who are watching it, “We can’t verify this material” a lot of the time”. Despite risks, however, she still concedes that "nothing beats eye witness reporting".

A highly practical and effective was to reduce the danger of conflict reporting is for different news agencies to collaborate and pool their resources. However, considering the fact that these are different companies working competitively against one another – to what extent can that be achieved? James Rodgers - a lecturer at City University, and former BBC foreign correspondent - concedes it’s a difficult issue, working together naturally increases safety, but “if you’re going to take the risk and go there [to the conflict zone], the desire to get a scoop doesn’t necessarily diminish either”.

“I think one of the great things last year at the height of Arab Springs was that there was a tremendous sharing of safety information” notes Whitehead. Whilst conceding different media companies are “super-competitive” about stories, she emphasises that there is a huge amount of sharing between Sky and other news channels on any issue and advice regarding the safety of their journalists.

Perhaps the most important issue for reporting safely, however, comes down to the character of the reporter themselves. Whitehead emphasises that a calm personality is absolutely crucial; “if someone panics – they put the whole team in danger”.

Topol believes experience is mandatory,  “You need to know how to do journalism to begin to be able to do journalism in a conflict zone - It is so much harder, because you have less time and you are under a lot more pressure, and you have to produce the same kind of in-depth reporting that you would [under peaceful circumstances]”.

Despite the huge advances in communication and protective equipment, Rodgers believes conflict reporting is more dangerous now than ever. “In the Cold War, at least you knew who was on who’s side” he notes. Now, the situation is much more confusing. Media systems and news companies have altered dramatically in our digital age and political and diplomatic situations have become fractured. The result is “multi-sided conflicts which require multi-sided reporting”.