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A protester uses her phone to film during protests in Charlotte, North Carolina, in September 2016. CPJ's safety survey found 85 percent of respondents believe journalism is becoming a less safe job. (Reuters/Mike Blake)

Why going solo is a risk for female reporters in the US and Canada

By Lucy Westcott/James W. Foley Fellow on September 4, 2019 9:00 AM ET

In June 2016, an attacker was terrorizing women on a jogging path in Edmonton, Canada. A video journalist at a large Canadian broadcaster was assigned to cover the story on the night shift. Multiple sexual assaults had been reported and the man was still at-large.

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The journalist, who asked CPJ for anonymity to protect her safety and privacy, said she was taken aback when a female editor assigned her to the story. It wasn’t the story itself, she said, but that she was expected to go alone.

“I had to play it back to her and say, ‘Let me get this straight. You want me, a female reporter in her twenties, to go to a jogging path when a man is known by police to be assaulting 20-something females, by myself, and see what I can get on camera’,” she said in an interview with CPJ. The implication from her boss, the journalist said, was that she should tough it out, or someone else could take her place.

The reporter took the assignment, but she said that the experience taught her that some of her editors “were a little out of touch with what it means to actually go out by yourself.”

There will always be dangerous stories to cover. It’s what journalists do. But this reporter’s experience reflects a trend in which more broadcast journalists are sent out into the field alone.

She was one of 115 journalists who responded to a CPJ survey on safety issues for female and gender non-conforming journalists in the U.S. and Canada. The majority (85 percent) said they believed journalism was becoming a less safe job. When it came to safety, respondents cited working alone and crude comments as concerns. Several said they lacked support or empathy from editors, who appeared to have an attitude of do the job or move aside, no matter the risk.

When asked about the biggest safety gap though, broadcasters were clear: solo work.

“Video journalists operate on their own, with no one looking at their back while they look at the camera,” a broadcaster based in Halifax, Canada, who asked not to be named, said in the survey. “I have been threatened on-scene, followed in my marked vehicle and screamed at, and have had to involve the police to stop someone from contacting me and asking my co-workers about me.”

In response to the survey’s findings, CPJ’s Emergencies Department has created a series of safety notes to help female reporters and their newsrooms understand and better prepare for risks.

‘Are You Here To Film a Sex Tape?’

The pivot to solo assignments increases risks, CPJ has found. Previously, reporters were more likely to work with a camera operator or crew. Reporters in the survey said there was a lack of understanding between what assignment editors want and what the reporters often have to face in public. Tighter budgets, quick turnarounds, and a greater reliance on smartphones to do the job mean that more video journalists are expected and encouraged to go it alone.

“In this day and age, sending anyone places by themselves with news gear just encourages the crazies,” Pilar Pedraza, a Kansas-based broadcast reporter with two decades of experience, said in the survey. “The gap [is] management recognition of the problem, especially of women working as multimedia journalists.”

"It's not about women journalists being weaker, but being more likely to be targeted because of the way our society works," Pedraza added.

Several journalists said that working alone resulted in constant unwanted and unsolicited sexual comments and propositions, harassment that’s exacerbated with a camera or other equipment in-tow.

The most common harassment, one Iowa and Illinois-based broadcaster, said is people asking if she’s there to film a sex tape. “Is that a thing other reporters commonly hear?” the journalist asked in the survey. “I’m alone in all these instances. When I had a crew, stuff like this did not happen.”

‘Fake news’ tensions

Several of the journalists said the biggest risks came while covering protests or large gatherings. “The ‘fake news’ threat when covering protests is growing, and being alone at an assignment with a large group gathering is unsafe,” Carly Robinson, a Canadian video journalist, said in a follow up interview with CPJ.

In the survey, 57 percent of journalists said they had dealt with threats around so-called “fake news” when reporting, including being accused of peddling “fake news” or having the term shouted at them.

The danger of solo work was more apparent in high-tension, large-crowd events like protests, especially those organized and attended by extremist groups. In those situations, Robinson said, “[When] doing your own camera work, as the anti-media sentiment grows, the camera puts a target on your back.”

Other journalists recounted similar experiences. The reporter from Edmonton said she was singled out by a by prominent Canadian right-wing figure while covering a rally in late 2016. Footage she shot that day, which was seen by CPJ, shows hundreds of people surrounding her, booing and jeering. “Even watching that video now gets my adrenaline going,” she said. “I was rattled for sure.”

She said that when she made her way back through the crowd, she put headphones on as a signal to the crowd that she would not engage with them. And later, when she set up for a live shot of the protest, she did it far from the crowd.

Safety training gaps

While the survey found that editors were supportive when a reporter had been harassed, there appeared to be a lack of awareness about potential risks. One editor said she would like firmer guidelines about dealing with aggression during interviews, and others who replied to the survey said there was a need for more training so they could better support staff and students.

Security managers and safety trainers who work with journalists told CPJ that the high financial cost is the main barrier to training. Another challenge was that many editors did not consider domestic reporting risky enough for specialized training or support, the safety experts said.

“It’s a problem that we’ve created what I consider a false dichotomy between a conflict zone, and everything else, which is [considered] safe. It’s an outdated model,” Jason Reich, vice president of corporate security at The New York Times and the former director of global security at BuzzFeed, said.

Instead of Hostile Environment First Aid Training (HEFAT), which prepares international reporters covering conflict for bombs, bullets, and guns, editors based in the U.S. and Canada need to take what Reich calls a “holistic approach… a slower understanding of risk.” This training focuses on harassment, security issues— including those women face—civil unrest, and natural disasters. “I’d like to see more of it,” Reich said.

Alison Baskerville, founder of ROAAAR, a U.K.-based organization that offers safety training that focuses on women’s safety and sexual violence, said that the U.S. was “one of the most dangerous places to work right now,” especially in the Midwestern and Southern states. The risks are largely from guns, she said. Risks also come from attending political rallies where attendees are encouraged to intimidate the media, said Baskerville, who has trained U.S.-based female photographers on safety.

“When these women were sharing their experiences of working in the U.S., I thought, ‘you all need training’,” she told CPJ. “You don’t need to go to the Middle East [to experience danger].”

Baskerville said that HEFAT training can be excessive for reporters working in the U.S. But for many U.S. and Canada-based reporters it’s HEFAT or nothing.

Some of the reporters who responded to the survey said that their security concerns had been taken seriously. The Canadian video journalist Robinson said she was assigned a security guard after being harassed and attacked online over her coverage at a “yellow vest” protest in Edmonton, Alberta, in December 2018. Robinson said that clashes broke out, but when protesters spotted her camera, they said, “We don’t need no witnesses here,” she told CPJ.

Robinson said protesters pushed her and a man affiliated with a far-right group later made a threat online that he would show up at her office. People made slanderous comments about her online, and tweeted that Robinson solicited sex for interviews, she said. Robinson added that a male colleague who covered the protests was left alone.

Robinson told her boss about the threats, and was assigned a guard for three weeks. Her news organization also re-evaluated the security of the building. Robinson filed a police report and the local police department’s hate crime organization monitored the situation. They told her there was little they could do because the tweets did not cross any legal line and came from an organization, rather than an individual user, she told CPJ.

Robinson said she has dealt with the emotional toll of dangerous solo assignments and online harassment. At the very least, she said, her experience “opened the eyes of fellow female journalists in the same role of the threat possible.”

For the other Canadian reporter who requested anonymity, she said that after she was groped covering the NHL hockey playoffs in 2017 her newsroom took her physical safety concerns seriously. She—and many who took the survey—believes editors need an urgent awakening about the risks for staff.

“The best thing that could happen is to push editors to go into the field, even if they just shadow a reporter for a few shifts,” the reporter said. “I really think there has been a loss of understanding of what reporters do now.”

  • For more information on how journalists can better protect themselves, visit the CPJ Emergencies Department resource center.

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