How journalists can stay safe while working in the field

When journalists head into the field to cover a story, they frequently bring expensive equipment with them. Whether it’s high-end digital cameras, video cameras for television, laptops or smart phones, the gear that’s essential to our jobs can also be tempting to criminals.

After San Francisco Bay Area journalists were robbed in six separate incidents in this summer, I talked to some of those news teams to find out what happened. The journalists I spoke with offered advice on how to stay safe while reporting in the field, what to do if your equipment is stolen, and how to protect your data in case it disappears into thieves’ hands.

Prepare before you go

Laura Oda, chief photographer for the Oakland Tribune, was shooting murals for a news article earlier this month. As she was loading her cameras back into her car, two men approached her from behind. One pointed a gun at her and said, “Gimme all your stuff.” They made off with four cameras, three lenses, a laptop, a hard drive and many archives from Oda’s 18 years at the Tribune. She was angry and shaken, but unharmed.

Afterward, Oda regretted she hadn’t done more to protect her data. She recommended that other reporters activate the tracking feature in their laptop, if it’s an Apple. “I could have immediately tried to track my laptop and given the information to the police,” she said in an email interview. If police can recover a stolen device, sometimes they can catch the person who stole it. Also, take note of the serial numbers of all devices you carry with you. Police can record those numbers, and return your gear if it’s recovered.

Oda recommended making backups of all your important files. Don’t store your backup drive in the same place as your computer, though. Instead, keep it in your desk at the office, at home, or somewhere else safe and separate.

The Committee to Protect Journalists even recommends using a separate computer and phone, containing minimal data, when you’re out in the field. That way, if items are stolen, you don’t lose so much of your archived work.

While you’re out, stay alert and stick together

In late June, one of KTVU-TV’s crews was covering a crash between a bicycle and motorcycle. They were up in the Oakland hills, in a remote, wooded area. After filing their footage, the reporter was finalizing her script when three men approached the van. Two grabbed the news camera, while the third snatched the laptop. “We assumed they had weapons, though they weren’t overtly displayed,” Ed Chapuis, KTVU’s news director, said in a phone interview.

KTVU takes plenty of steps to protect its workers. Each year, it provides safety training sessions for all employees, Chapuis said. In recent years, it has fenced its headquarters to protect employees, and sends guards with crews when they’re going to dangerous areas. They regularly use unmarked trucks, since news vans are recognized for carrying expensive gear.

However, the most crucial thing is to stay alert. “You need to be in a constant state of assessment,” Chapuis said. “Know where the line of danger is, and take 10 big steps back.”

Sticking together is also important, said Tracey Watkowski, the news director for KGO-TV. One of her news crews was robbed in San Francisco in early May, in the midst of covering a four-alarm fire -- with dozens of police officers and firefighters nearby.

“When you’re working in a situation with a photographer, stay with your photographer” for both people’s safety, Watkowski said in a phone interview. Similarly, at major news scenes, live crews and vans will often band together, Chapuis said. “We’re not competitive when it comes to [safety].”

If you’re robbed, put safety first, and report the crime quickly

If someone takes your gear, get to somewhere safe and report the crime immediately -- to your managers, and to the police. If you were able to take down your gear’s serial numbers and enable any tracking software, share that information with the police as well. Give them the best description of the suspect or suspects that you can.

You may also want to warn other reporters, especially after a rash of robberies such as those that hit Bay Area journalists this summer. After Chapuis’ team told him they’d been robbed, he said he contacted the other news directors in the region, so they could be alert to similar danger.

In any dangerous situation, reporters should remember that their own safety is always more important than the assignment they’re working, or the gear they’re carrying. “If equipment is lost, that’s a terrible aspect, but the main thing is protecting our people,” Watkowski said.

Every time Chapuis leads a safety-training session with his employees, whether it’s one-on one or in groups, he emphasizes their safety and security. “In everything we do, we’re trying to keep the crews safe while still being able to do their jobs,” he said. “No live shot or story is worth getting hurt over.”

Related: Newspaper carriers the victims of crime as they make the rounds


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