Wellness Tips

How to lead a newsroom in times of crisis and keep journalists safe

In his 30-year career as a journalist, Manny Garcia has witnessed executions, covered murders, and once accidentally walked in to a crime scene, finding a dead person at the bottom of a pool.

While working on a story with a photographer, he came face-to-face with a drug dealer who pointed a gun at them and asked them why he shouldn’t kill them.

“Needless to say, we got out of it, but at no point, telling this to my editors, did anybody say, ‘Are you OK, Manny? Do you need to talk to somebody? No. In fact, it was like, ‘Well, you’re here. Work on the story,” Garcia, executive editor for the Austin American-Statesman, recalled during a panel about leading a newsroom during times of crisis at the 2023 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Orlando.

In 2020, with encouragement from his wife, he sought therapy and was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I’ve been open about this, because you not ever suffer in silence,” Garcia said. “It’s very important to support each other now more than ever, because this is a beautiful profession. You can change lives.”

Garcia’s career unfolded during a time when there were barely any discussions about journalists’ safety and mental health. But that has changed dramatically, for the better, in recent years in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a seemingly never-ending string of mass shootings, and increasing hostility toward journalists, particularly online.

Today more than ever there are resources for newsrooms to keep journalists’ safe, including from leading organizations such as the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, PEN America and the ACOS Alliance.

And more journalism groups and conferences are devoting time to this topic.

During the IRE panel, Garcia, along with Cristi Hegranes, chief executive officer and publisher of Global Press, shared how they bring a culture of safety to their newsrooms — Garcia, managing a regional newspaper, and Hegranes, leading independent news bureaus, staffed by local, women reporters, in some of the world’s least-covered places. I helped moderate the panel.

Below are six tips from my conversation with Garcia and Hegranes.

1. Make safety and security a priority and part of newsroom culture.

At Global Press, safety practices are part of daily newsroom operations instead of being a reactive response.

“It’s making sure that duty of care and security is alive every single day,” Hegranes said. “It’s not just something we talk about when an emergency happens. It’s part of how the newsroom operates. We very intentionally don’t have one person who’s like the director of security or the director of duty of care. Duty of care is written into every single person’s job description. Everyone is responsible for their own security, the security of their colleagues and the risk management of the organization.”

2. Invest in mental health.

“There is oftentimes a misconception of like, ‘Oh, you have to be one of like those big newsrooms in order to afford resources for your reporter.’ And that’s false. We all need to stop believing that because there are so many resources,” Hegranes said.

At Global Press, 3% of every dollar they raise goes toward duty of care. Hegranes shared the three components of wellness at Global Press:

  1. Psycho-education. “Psycho-education is critical,” she said. It’s about “giving reporters the tools to understand what is burnout. How do you mitigate it? How do you bounce back from it? What is stress? What is trauma? What is resilience?”
  2. Culture. “We have wellness ambassadors for each region, who are responsible for making sure that their reporters in each region of the world know what services are available to them,” Hegranes said.
  3. Wellness Network: The Global Press Wellness Network is a network of more than 30 counselors who speak the languages of the organization’s reporters all around the world and are available for free, unlimited sessions. A full-time wellness network manager recruits and trains the counselors. Reporters use a confidential system to request sessions.

“Prior to the pandemic, about 40% of our reporters were using the Wellness Network,” Hegranes said. “Today, more than 80% of reporters at Global Press use the Wellness Network. Most reporters use it for more than 12 weeks in a year.”

To provide services for its core staff in the U.S. and parts of Europe, Global Press has partnered with Talkspace, an online counseling resource. Global Press pays for every employee to have two counseling sessions a month on Talkspace.

3. Remember that framing matters.

When building safety programs, focus on resilience and wellness, not crisis response and trauma.

“It’s not about, ‘You’re in crisis, go get help.’ It’s about, ‘You’re well, stay well.’ If you’re well, let’s figure out how to keep you well,” Hegranes said.

4. Assess reporters’ risk tolerance.

Global Press has developed a tool that allows reporters to do a risk-profile assessment. There are four levels: Aggressive, moderate, conservative and casual.

The aggressive risk profile means the reporter is willing and able to tolerate a high degree of risk, while the casual risk profile denotes a reporter who is often surprised and unprepared for risk.

“This has been such a game changing tool for us because it allows reporters to really think critically about how they approach risk and so that we can help them prepare for big stories and mitigate that risk,” Hegranes said.

It also helps editors to better understand their reporters.

“If you’re sending your most conservative risk profile reporter out to a big protest where tear gas is being shot, the reality is you’re probably not going to get the story that you want, because the reporter is just fundamentally telling you, ‘Hey, that’s not my jam.’ And that’s okay,” she said. “So having frank conversations about risk and really diagnosing it, I think is one of the most powerful, simple tools that newsrooms can do.”

5. Stay in communication with reporters in the field.

Garcia said as part of his newsroom’s practice, editors check in with reporters before they begin a high-risk assignment: Where are they going? Where are they staying? Is their cell phone charged? Do they have backup battery? Do they have cash? Do they have pencils?

Before the reporter goes out the editor knows where they are going, especially if they are going somewhere with spotty cell service.

In some cases, the editor texts a reporter in the field to check on them.

6. Make reporters part of the safety planning process.

Too often the burden of security is on the journalist alone, Hegranes said.

“‘Oh, go take a hostile environments training. Oh, you should secure your social media. Oh, you should do this. You should do that.’ At Global Press, we know after 17 years that the best way for our journalists to find security is in solidarity with the newsroom,” she said. “It is absolutely a partnership and the newsroom has to take a heavy responsibility for the reporter security, both planning for how to mitigate it but also the services on the response after the fact.”

Hegranes advised newsroom managers to design their security and safety protocols with reporters.

“We just have to really shift this top-down mechanism where we tell you this is our security policy. It needs to flip for the reporter to say this is what I need in order to cover that story,” she said.

And sometimes that can be done with a simple survey to find out what the reporters need.

For example, a couple of years ago, Global Press conducted a survey of 300 journalists across East Africa and found that a vast majority of reporters said the most common physical injury in the field was to the palms of their hands from falling off the backs of Boda Boda motorcycle taxis.

“And the lesson there is not, ‘Don’t ride a motorcycle taxis,’” Hegranes said. “It’s, ‘We can equip reporters with the tools they need to mitigate risks and keep themselves safe.’ So we added to our training a very simple physical security training about what to carry with you and how to pack wounds on your own hand or somebody else’s hand.”

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