May 9, 2020
No, really, you with the camera, listen up. Your life may depend on it.
Violence towards the media is on the rise, tensions are high, and the constant pummeling of the “Fake News” mantra doesn't help calm the already turbulent situation.
The first week of May has been particularly bad. On May 4, a colleague working in the Quad Cities, IL / IA was assaulted and his camera smashed while the photojournalist was in the area getting video of local businesses. Luckily, law enforcement was able to identify and arrest the 45-year-old suspect. On May 5, a photojournalist in Indianapolis was assaulted and robbed at the scene of a crash. The suspects left the scene and have not been apprehended.
These are just two incidents that we know of that occurred last week along with the many other confrontations, sometimes physical, between members of the public and the media over the past few years.
While there is no immediate solution that you or I can implement to make our job magically free of danger, nor will it ever really be that way, what you can do right now is use some skills and tactics to limit the probability of a violent encounter or reduce the severity of an encounter should one occur.
I'm never going to say that if any of the above photojournalists did this or did that, nothing would have ever happened to them. I refuse to pass judgment and say they did something wrong because, well, I wasn't there. I don't know all the dynamics of what happened in any of those situations. But what I will do is talk over and over and over again about the foundations of personal safety.
When I worked in EMS, I survived 20 years of frequently hostile situations because I had the best training. All those years and many courses later, they helped me understand how to deal with conflict and to be proactive to not only advocate for my own safety but also to try and avoid any situation that would cause me harm.
Let's talk about the foundation for working safely, the concept of Situational Awareness. The idea of situational awareness is that if you are paying attention to your surroundings, looking for things that seem out of place or unusual, you can make changes to what you are doing to avoid conflict or danger. No, this is not some Jason Bourne spy trick, it's actually something we do in our lives, every day.
As an example in the non-newsgathering world, you are at the beach laying in the sand on a large towel. When you initially arrived at the beach the water was far away from you and not a problem. An hour goes by and you are awakened from a nap by a wave crashing on you, soaking you and your beach towel. You were not situationally aware of the tide coming in and completely vulnerable. Had you been paying attention to your surroundings you may have chosen to proactively relocate your towel and belongings to an area away from the water.
It's easy to miss something if you aren't looking for it. Fighter pilots use something called the “OODA Loop” to do this. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. These two systems can help you be more ready to respond to hazards by making critical decisions on the job. Being aware of our surroundings is key to all of this.
In the 1970s, Jeff Cooper came up with a system for being ready to apply self-defense tactics; it's called the “Cooper Color Code.” The “code” is actually conditions or levels of situational awareness. The conditions are White, Yellow, Orange, Red and Black. I want you to be in Condition Yellow. You might be thinking, how does this apply to me? Let’s talk about the conditions and why I want you to be in Yellow.
- Condition White, Unprepared - This is the majority of people! These people are completely unprepared and unaware of their surroundings. In Condition White you may be in deadly danger and not realize it. If you are assaulted in Condition White, you are unlikely to be able to effectively respond and you may be seriously injured or killed. Condition White is the person walking the street wearing earbuds, music turned up and looking at the ground.
- Condition Yellow, Prepared - This is a state of relaxed alertness and situational awareness. In Condition Yellow although you are not aware of any specific situation that may call for immediate action, you know that you may have to defend yourself today. Defense might mean fight or flight. You understand that the world is full of hazards, many of which are human, and that your readiness to take action can help avoid these threats. If you are attacked in Condition Yellow, you will probably prevail.
- Condition Orange, Alert - You become aware of the possibility of a threat in your immediate area. In Orange, you understand that you may have to fight or run away, immediately, today. You begin actively looking for threat indicators and start an OODA Loop of potential threats. Someone is shouting profanities and coming toward me -- what’s in their hands, do they have a weapon or their fists clenched? Can you safely leave the area? Should you?
- Condition Red, Action - You have decided to act the instant the threat’s behavior warrants an immediate response. This is Fight right NOW or Flight, run away as fast as you can.
- Condition Black is panic or the total breakdown of physical and mental performance, you freeze. You do not want to find yourself here!
All right, let's take these skills you just read about and apply them to a newsgathering situation. What would you do?
- You are working alone as a MMJ in a small market. You just got done shooting your story about a string of gas station robberies. You are at one of the gas stations that was robbed and it happens to be closed today. You are sitting in your car, editing your story, you are live from there in two hours. You hear a rumble through your headphones and look up to see a large truck parked facing your news car. The driver of that truck startles you when they appear at the passenger’s side window of your car. They claim to have a news tip and start to propagate something you immediately dismiss as a conspiracy theory. The person gets agitated because they feel that you are not taking their tip seriously and gets aggressive, they call you names and then storm off but first threaten you with bodily harm before driving away.
OK, at this point what do you do? Do you report the incident to your supervisor? Do they kill the live shot and tell you to come home? Do you say nothing and go back to working on your pak?
- It’s 30 minutes to airtime, you filed your pak and you are ready to go live, you set your gear up and tested your transmitter when you notice a small car quickly pull into the lot of the gas station. The car races over to where you are set up and you immediately recognize the driver as the same person from the earlier encounter. He is yelling at you through the window of his car, he is clearly agitated about something. He is currently seated in his car.
OK, NOW what do you do? What are your options in a scenario like this? Each of you will come up with a different strategy for dealing with a situation like this based on your personal experiences and known limitations. How can you harness situational awareness, the OODA Loop and the Color Codes to manage this incident?
I know this is a lot to digest, it's a heap of information to process. Here is a link to my web page where you can watch a few videos that I selected because I feel they show these concepts really well.
Talk to your employer about what to do and how to report threats if you receive one on the job. Gear can be replaced if smashed to pieces by a disgruntled person; you can't be replaced!
There is no perfect solution to any of this. Learning the concepts of safety I mentioned above will help you be smarter and make better decisions, it's a skill that takes practice and application. Try it! Next time you are in a restaurant, in your office or walking in the park, look around, think about vulnerabilities and strategies, what would I do if?
Please don't hesitate to reach out to me if you have questions about any of this. I am always available to answer questions about journalism safety.
Chris Post, Chair, NPPA Safety & Security Committee
Twitter & IG - @ChrisMPost
Cell - 610-972-1963
*Update/clarification: the circumstances of the May 5 assault in Indianapolis are not completely clear. We will update information as we learn more.