June 29, 2018

Following reports of an active shooter at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, news organizations around the U.S. upped their security.

In New York City, police dispatched units to several news organizations to guard against copycat or coordinated attacks, USA Today reported. Since the Capital Gazette is owned by Chicago-based Tribune Publishing Co., formerly Tronc, law enforcement there maintained real-time communication with the FBI and Annapolis police while checking in with local media outlets to stay ahead of any threats. Similar measures were taken at newsrooms spanning from Los Angeles to Nashville.

Federal officials told news organizations those precautions are common in the wake of mass shootings like the one at the Capital Gazette, where five journalists were killed in the 154th mass shooting of the year. But in the future, newsrooms obviously can’t rely on 24/7 protection from local police to ensure their safety — and as several journalists noted on Twitter yesterday, newsroom security is notoriously lax as budget cuts make it harder to keep full-time security staff.

“I think that news organizations of all sizes have to think very seriously about the security of their offices and access inside your building,” said Frank Smyth, executive director of Global Journalist Security — a journalist training company based in Washington, D.C. “News organizations like The Washington Post and The New York Times do this very well, but smaller news organizations, of course, have seen less need for security in the past — and I think it’s time that they reevaluate those concerns.”

It’s not cheap or feasible for all newsrooms to incorporate things like bulletproof glass, armed guards and safe rooms in their offices. But with a small investment, outlets can make big changes to their security protocol — which could come in handy during potential attacks.

“At one point a few years ago the paper I edited had the record of being the most shot-at paper in Mexico (five times),” said Javier Garza, a journalist in northern Mexico, safety advisor for the World Association of Newspapers and former editorial director of El Siglo de Torreón, in an email to Poynter. “In my experience newsroom security is not needed until it is needed. In other words, it was something nobody worried about until the first attack.”

In that spirit, here are some things Smyth and Garza said a newsroom of any size can do to improve its security. Have another tip we missed? Email us at dfunke@poynter.org.

  1. Have a secure door that locks. This seems simple enough, but Smyth said that people can just walk right into most small newsrooms. He recommends a reinforced steel door that can’t be shot through (The Capital Gazette shooter entered the newsroom through a glass door) and locking it both during and after work hours to ensure no one slips in unnoticed. That adds extra tasks to someone’s to-do list, but it’s cheaper and quicker than hiring full-time security guards. Garza also recommended media outlets consider adding double doors for an additional safeguard.
  2. Update policies about visitors, vendors and other tenants. Garza said newsrooms should revisit the conditions under which other people can visit the office in order to ensure that bad actors don’t slip through the cracks. It’s also important to negotiate the terms under which tenants that may share the building with a media outlet may move freely between their offices and the newsroom.
  3. Install cameras at each entrance to your newsroom. Smyth said this creates a way to see visitors before they’re in the building, and could reveal a potential shooter with a long gun before an attack occurs. There are several economical options — for as little as $40 per unit online — and newsroom employees could take shifts monitoring the live feed to avoid hiring anyone else. Seeing a potential intruder ahead of time and behind locked doors could give newsrooms more time to call the police before something happens.
  4. Have multi-purpose, accessible emergency exits. These could be your typical fire exits, but make sure they’re outfitted for an active shooter situation. Smyth, a former Committee to Protect Journalists senior adviser who authored the organization’s Journalist Security Guide, said having one place that your entire staff knows to go to in case of a shooting makes evacuating the building safer and more efficient, and having cameras at the entrance lets you see which exits are clear to use.
  5. Consider launching a GoFundMe. No one likes asking for money, but if your newsroom is really behind on security or doesn’t have the manpower to make changes by itself, it’s worth a call-to-action. Smyth said an investment as small as $5,000 could really improve a newsroom’s security measures by hiring reasonably priced contractors to install reinforced doors and locks and camera systems.
  6. Schedule an active shooter training session. These short classes, which are free at many police departments around the U.S., teach civilians, businesses and schools what to do in case they encounter an active shooter. This is worth getting on your newsroom calendar to ensure that everyone at your organization knows what to do in case of an emergency. To achieve maximum preparedness, Garza said media outlets should also schedule a personal safety course that includes self-defense, first aid and surveillance detection.
  7. Have a contingency plan. Many news organizations have business continuity plans in case something like a natural disaster makes it impossible to keep working at the office. But it’s important for outlets to also have such plans for shootings and other newsroom attacks, Smyth said — and to share them widely and frequently with staff. Among the things it should include are how to direct 911 to your newsroom’s location (whether it be a standalone building or a unit within a larger one) and ensuring law enforcement has a floor plan of your office.
  8. Consider installing panic buttons. In an emergency situation, newsroom staff may freeze and forget what they’re supposed to do when an attack occurs. Garza said having a panic button or automated response system could ensure that police get to the premises as quick as possible. These are fairly cheap online and can be connected to existing security alarms or emergency phone numbers.
  9. Create a digital threat reporting policy. As some noted on Twitter yesterday, journalists regularly receive a barrage of threats online. But while this kind of abuse may be somewhat commonplace, it’s important for your newsroom to have a policy in place outlining when journalists should report threatening messages to leadership, who can then take appropriate security measures. Garza also said newsroom employees should be careful to not give too much identifying information via phone calls or emails to make it harder for attackers to locate them, and that newsrooms should establish protocols for when to use encrypted messaging over group chats and other communication methods.
  10. Schedule an active shooting drill. Smyth said this could take two forms: a replication of an active shooter situation (with a fake gun and gunfire) or a Red Ball Drill, which avoids traumatizing participants and observers. This will test your newsroom’s emergency preparedness plan and give people a sense of what an actual emergency could look like.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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