Medill, Foley Foundation publish safety guide on conflict reporting

David Fishman, Assistant Summer Editor

Medill and the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation published a safety guide earlier this month for college journalism educators to teach students about the growing risk of reporting on conflict, terrorism and violence around the world.

The three-part online curriculum is called “The James W. Foley Guide on Journalists’ Safety,” named after Foley, an American journalist murdered by the Islamic State two years ago while reporting abroad. Medill Prof. Ellen Shearer, who spearheaded the efforts, said the guide would fill a void in risk management education for aspiring journalists.

“The idea was to (educate people) rather than having them get out in field and then realize they need to learn on the job how to do risk assessment,” Shearer said. “There’s a lot of preparation and risk to think about before heading into the field.”

The 10-hour curriculum includes a mixture of documentaries, case studies and research on conflict reporting. In the first lesson, students are asked to watch “Jim: The James Foley Story” and answer a series of introductory questions.

Shearer said the guide was created in collaboration with Medill students, Reporters Without Borders and A Culture of Safety Alliance.

David Rohde, an editor at Reuters and co-chair of the ACOS executive board, said the guide would help address an increasingly risky climate for journalists.

“The risks were lower previously,” he said. “It’s unfair, but this generation of reporters faces more threats from states … and an array of insurgent groups and criminals that now intentionally target journalists.”

In 2008, Rohde was kidnapped by the Taliban while working on a book about the region. His story, widely documented by American media, was adapted into a case study for the new guide.

Rohde said today was “open season on journalists,” but that the world still needed conflict reporters to spread news. In 2015, 73 journalists were killed while on the job, up from 50 a decade earlier, according the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“The thing I urge young journalists now is to weigh the potential value of a story versus the risk they’re taking,” he said. “Looking back now on my own career I took a major risk to interview a Taliban commander … and that was a mistake. The potential payoff wasn’t worth it.”

In the future, Shearer said she hoped to incorporate the new curriculum into both graduate and undergraduate Medill classes.

Ryan Holmes (Medill ’14, ’16), who worked on the guide while interning at Reporters Without Borders, said classes at Medill provided a discussion around conflict, but little practical training.

“In our work we hoped to raise additional questions that come up in some of those more specific Medill classes about how to be safe,” he said. “A big mistake that reporters can make before they go over is not having taken all the safety precautions they can.”

While Holmes said he had no interest in reporting on conflict himself, he stressed the importance of its continuing coverage.

“It absolutely has to continue,” he said. “James Foley said it well: The reason we know about what’s going on in Syria … is because of the brave men and women who are reporting on it.”

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Twitter: @davidpkfishman