Journalists' survival schools

Spanish journalist Javier Sierra thought he was in Woodstock, Va., only to serve as interpreter for a group of Latino student journalists in a class on battlefield conditions. Then, suddenly, someone stuck a hood over his head.

"It scared the hell out of me," recalled Sierra, who has worked with APTN, CNN and Univision and is now a Washington-based consultant. Although he knew that the training for journalists included simulated danger situations, he didn't know he'd be drawn in so directly or that the loss of control would be so affecting—even though, in the strictest sense, he knew he was in no danger.

"They manhandled me, put me on the floor ... I had no idea what they were going to do. Even though I knew nothing was going to happen, the shock of that hood over my head was pretty intense." Since that class, in 2000, Sierra has attended many classes, at the same military academy in Virginia and at Centurion Risk Assessment's main facility in England. Now working as a consultant to Centurion, Sierra has even driven the getaway car for ersatz "kidnappers."

Hazard training seems more Journalism 9/11 than Reporting 101, but networks are finding it necessary before sending their staffs into hostile or dangerous environments, foreign or domestic. Network executives say they want their staffers' first exposure to gunfire, dangerous chemicals, landmines, kidnappers, battle wounds and trauma to come at a time when they can learn—not suffer—from them.

The Freedom Forum lists more than 1,300 journalists killed on the job over 200 years. Because eight reporters were killed covering the war on terrorists in Afghanistan and because Wall Street Journal
reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan, CNN now mandates hazard training. "We took a program that had been optional and made it mandatory," said the network's newsgathering head, Eason Jordan. "It was no longer just a question of putting on better flak jackets."

Fox News Channel also says training for hostile environments is mandatory for its foreign correspondents but would not discuss its programs for security reasons.

Possibly because Great Britain is a base for so many foreign journalists, some of the most prominent schools for journalists and others seeking safety training are taught there by former British military specialists, including Centurion Risk Assessment Services Ltd. founder Paul Rees, who lists Associated Press, BBC, Reuters and NBC among clients, and by Andrew Kain, the "AK" in AKE Group Ltd., whose clients include NBC, BBC, Time, Newsweek
and CNN.

In addition, Bruhn NewTech, with offices in the U.K., the U.S. and Denmark, specializes in chemical- and biological-weapons awareness and has worked with ABC. Pilgrims Security Services is yet another U.K.-based security trainer and adviser.

Courses typically run several days, at a cost of $400 to $600 per day, during which students may be in classrooms or in simulated hostilities, complete with explosives and belligerent soldiers or civilians.

"It's important that as many people as possible be given this exposure," said Denise Vance, of Associated Press Television News. "What do you do when a peaceful demonstration gets out of hand? Where do you stand when there's gunfire around you? We all use what our guts tell us. But it does not hurt to have someone who's looked at these scenarios advising you." AP estimates that about 400 of its staffers, more than 100 on the television side, have participated in hazard training.

Reporting from a danger zone "used to be more hit-and-run," recalled Associated Press Deputy International Editor Nick Tatro. "You look, you leave." But technology now allows transmission from the scene, and "sometimes we stay for hours or days on end in that environment."

Kain, who says his was the first group to bring special-forces expertise to journalists, says the classes were the result of entreaties from freelance journalists in the early 1990s.

"There's some correlation between what journalists do and what special forces do," he explained, "particularly the reliance on their own skills and equipment. Journalists don't want to know how to be soldiers, but they do want to know how things happen when the military is involved. We're trying to give people more control or give them the tools to retain control over their own destiny, reducing their dependence on luck."

CNN plans to take AKE consultants into the field to address safety concerns and operate its fleet of armored cars. Jordan said CNN also plans to have an AKE consultant available in Atlanta at all times.

CNN Cairo Bureau Chief Ben Wedeman, who took the training only last month after years as a foreign correspondent, thinks it's a good idea: "We've all been in dangerous situations, we've dealt with landmines and bombs, and we've been shot at. Most of the time, journalists emerge unharmed, as it's happened with me—except in that one case [he was wounded by gunshots in Gaza two years ago]. This course prepares you for when your luck runs out."

Despite years in the field, he learned a bit from AKE Ltd. about weaponry and a great deal about first aid. "We've all been in situations where we wish we'd known something more," Wedeman said.

He'd seen the training used before, when his car was in a serious multi-vehicle accident while driving from Baghdad, Iraq, to Amman, Jordan. Cameraman Brian Puchaty "took out his AKE medical bag and certainly established an element of order in a chaotic situation." Wedeman believes lives may have been saved by the quick action.

CBS Senior Vice President for News Coverage Marcy McGinnis says that, although correspondents are not required to take the training—veteran correspondent Allen Pizzey could probably teach a class, she notes—a five-day course in London is "strongly encouraged. We want our people to know how to assess an environment, how to handle negotiations at roadblocks, how to handle trauma and administer first aid. We want them to know how to avoid becoming a hostage but how to negotiate with abductors in case it happens."

First-aid training, news executives say, has been especially useful. McGinnis said that, covering the Bosnian war, CBS staffers were able to help some of their injured colleagues in the field.

"We look at the list of those who are trained before we make assignments," said ABC Director of Foreign News Coverage Chuck Lustig. "We don't look for training in self-defense or weapons. Our preference is to give them the knowledge to be safe and, if they find themselves in a dangerous environment, to get out."

ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent John Cochran—who moderated a panel on preparing for dangerous assignments at the recent Radio-Television News Directors Association Convention—recalled that, when he became a Middle East correspondent decades ago, he had had some military training but none as a journalist.

Failing to understand hostilities among rival Palestinian factions led to a near-fatal confrontation, he recalled, and some issues about how and where to point the camera came up the first day. "I learned that you don't want to shoot incoming fire. You want to shoot outgoing." He and his crew sustained some shrapnel bruises and vehicle damage but got out with a lesson: "Training for journalists is a very smart thing to do. If the opportunity is there, take it."

CNN's Wedeman joked that the training may have already contributed to his safety. "I was in Israel, and things were getting pretty nasty there. What better way to get out? So I bailed out of there and took this course."