Safety in Foreign Reporting

In a previous post, I addressed (and debunked) Ebola fears. But journalism does have hazards, and any prudent professional increases their odds of safety as much as possible. People who care about me would like to know how I stay safe. Here's the answer.

Trained in global health, I’ve had a thorough introduction to disease prevention. My preparations this time include all the usual healthy living, plus vaccines and preventive care for malaria, by far the most common disease in Africa. If things go south, practical skills from my years as an EMT also help.

Violence is a more serious concern -- and it is already emerging as a longer-range effect of the Ebola crisis. One of the best investments I’ve ever made was a self-defense course from Thousand Waves, a martial arts and self-defense school in Chicago. (I also studied karate there for two years and volunteered to help train others in self-defense.) More than any one fighting technique, it gave me the confidence to avoid and defuse harassment and assaults. I am, as they would say, a bad victim.

There’s more to it. This year in Bangladesh, I collaborated with a photojournalist who told me he feared the military, who were known to sometimes interfere with local reporters. Wanting to help, I asked, “Have you heard of the Committee to Protect Journalists?”

“No,” he said.

I have.

CPJ exists to provide support to journalists facing hazards or persecution in the course of working. It’s for disasters, and I hope to never need it. But it’s good to know. Ditto for Reporters without Borders, an organization offering insurance, training and support to journalists; I’m a member.

Finally: trauma. Both organizations offer education on post-traumatic stress disorder. But as a Fulbright fellow, I completed mental health research on post-traumatic stress in the survivors of the Rana Plaza atrocity. No one's immune to suffering, but I’m as well-versed in this topic as a journalist should be, and more.

Reporting on the Ebola epidemic is not easy. “There is no protocol; people are grasping for information,” one journalist told Columbia Journalism Review. Reporting on the downstream effects of it will be easier, but only to a point. All foreign reporting relies in part on a willingness to face risks wisely – whether political instability or invisible microbes. 

Whatever West Africa has in store, I’m ready.

I once had a date who called me “MacGyver.” I said I’d never answer to that, but you can call me anything you want if you donate here.