A camera operator films a demonstration denouncing the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in Ankara, Turkey, on May 15, 2018. (Photo by Adem Altan / AFP)

Situational awareness: A guide for journalists

When talking about journalist safety, security measures such as filling out a risk assessment, completing hostile environment awareness training (HEFAT), or using personal protective equipment (PPE) are often the first things to come to mind. However, one of the most important security measures in a journalist’s toolbox is the ability to maintain situational awareness and to remove yourself from harm’s way in advance of a threat.

This guide is intended for journalists and editors to refer to while planning assignments and reporting. Read on to understand more about what situational awareness is, why it’s important, and how situational awareness can be best used while reporting. For additional information on how to safely cover protests, please see CPJ’s safety videos. 

What is situational awareness and why is it important?

Situational awareness means being conscious of what is happening around you, how this does or could impact you, and what is likely to happen next.

Attention to your surroundings is the foundation for any effective decision-making. It enables you to recognize patterns and take the correct actions toward an intended outcome, or preventative actions to avoid negative consequences.

For example, if you are covering a demonstration, your risk assessment should identify where a threat could come from and what your exit strategy is. However, as you become immersed in reporting, recording, or filming, it is easy to miss or fail to notice potential dangers as they become a reality. 

If you see signs of a demonstration turning violent and you know that the police are likely to use tear gas as a crowd control measure, be conscious about the direction of the wind and reposition yourself as necessary. Similarly, if you are going to be reporting in an area with a history of anti-press sentiment or behavior by local militias, your risk assessment should cover who these actors are, their capabilities and mode of conduct, and how to identify them, as well as an understanding of local gun restrictions and laws. Once on the ground, be vigilant of your surroundings and how people are reacting to your presence. Keep an eye out for any signs of physical surveillance such as being followed, people looking at you when using their mobile phone (they could be talking about you and reporting on your activities), or people in general taking an unusual interest in you. Contact law enforcement if you feel unsafe or believe you are in immediate danger.

Intentionally acknowledging and reacting to risk is easier said than done. 

What are the different levels of awareness?

It is impossible to always be fully switched-on and aware of your surroundings. You will experience different levels of alertness depending on the context. Jeff Cooper, a U.S. Marine veteran, categorized the different awareness levels into a four-stage color code from white to red, which was later expanded to include a fifth level of black.

  • White is the stage of relaxation or distraction during which your guard is down and you are completely unaware of your surroundings and unprepared to act. This is a dangerous posture to adopt while on assignment. 
  • Yellow means that you are relaxed but paying attention to your environment, scanning it for potential threats, and are prepared to take action if necessary. This should be your baseline alertness level, especially in unfamiliar surroundings. 
  • Orange means that you identified a potential threat. You are focused and ready to act. 
  • Red means that you are actively responding to a threat. All your attention is focused on that specific emergency. This increases the danger of being less aware of secondary threats.
  • Black means that you panic and freeze, unable to take any action. This is the most dangerous state, as it is a breakdown of your physical and mental performance.

When is it important to have heightened situational awareness?

Situational awareness is not only important when reporting from hostile environments such as conflict zones or environments with extreme weather. It is important whenever you are reporting, including from demonstrations or even the scene of a crime

  • When you are on assignment you should always be in alertness level yellow, meaning you should be mindful and aware of your surroundings. This level means that you are attentive to what is happening around you to avoid being caught completely off-guard. 
  • Maintain heightened situational if you believe your physical safety may be at risk. This can simply be a quick scan of your car’s mirrors before exiting the vehicle or checking the street outside your home for any signs of surveillance or an approaching threat.
  • When you detect an increased risk or even just a change in the situation, react with intention. Consider if the change or increased risk is a danger, if you need to avoid it (e.g., by repositioning), and reevaluate your exit strategy. You may decide it is time to leave or move closer to your exit route. Do not simply accept the change in risk level. 

How to implement situational awareness

  • Always have a baseline level of alertness. If you don’t pay attention, you will not be prepared to deal with an emergency or unexpected change in your surroundings. As a consequence, you are more likely to be overwhelmed by a rush of adrenaline that can send you straight into the black stage of shock and panic. Therefore, avoid or minimize distractions—especially mobile phones—when on assignment. Be aware if you notice yourself slipping into the white/unaware stage.
  • Avoid threats as much as possible. If you are in the orange or red stage, be mindful of your location and try moving into a safer position.
  • Come prepared. Your ability to analyze your environment and predict what is going to happen next will be greatly enhanced through contextual knowledge. What is the terrain like, where are the escape routes and positions of tactical advantage? Who are the actors on the ground, how can you distinguish them, and how are they likely to behave? What are the early signs of the situation deteriorating? 
  • Avoid working alone. Having other journalists or crew members around you allows for 360-degree situational awareness. This is especially important in the orange and red stages where your focus is narrowed on the threat ahead of you, while other crew members can remain alert in all directions.
  • Hone your skills. Train yourself to switch between alertness stages and to conduct an inventory of your surroundings, such as other people in a restaurant or the cars behind you on your way to work.
  • Trust your gut feeling. Listen to your instincts and remove yourself from a situation if it does not feel right.

What are the challenges to observing situational awareness?

The biggest challenge to situational awareness is your brain going into a complacent mode

The brain activity necessary for maintaining situational awareness takes up a lot of energy. This is tiring, and your brain by default tries to conserve energy. If no immediate threat is identified, the brain automatically switches into a mode of cognitive ease that requires less energy to maintain.

When on assignment, here are some common examples that can lead to the loss of situational awareness:

  • You are at a location you regularly go to and are convinced is safe. It may be an event that you have been attending for several days (e.g., a protest) and in the beginning you were hypervigilant of risk but as time has passed, the lack of threat has convinced your brain to go into complacent mode. 
  • You are fatigued and your energy levels are drained at the end of a busy day.
  • You are stressed; for instance, if you are trying to meet a tight deadline.

Identify these moments of vulnerability and be aware of the shortcuts your brain will want to take. 

Actively engage your mental alertness and scan your environment for potential threats. Even if you have done a task a hundred times before, always ask yourself, “Is there anything new here that could pose a threat to me?”

In the end, the most powerful tool you have to protect yourself is your mind.

Journalists requiring assistance can contact CPJ via [email protected].

CPJ Emergencies has additional information on basic preparednessassessing and responding to risk, or safety measures when covering civil conflict and disturbances. Journalists can find more of CPJ’s safety information here.