Tragedies & Journalists


The Los Angeles police officer said at the "Homeland Terrorism: A Primer for First-responder Journalists" conference in June 2003 that journalists usually arrive either before or immediately following police and firefighters.

That realization is probably nothing new to any experienced reporter or photographer who has been first to arrive at the scene of a violent attack. However, in today's society in which terrorism has become even more of a threat, journalists and their supervisors must be aware of possible safety and ethical issues.

"Police officers, firefighters and paramedics are equipped and trained for emergency intervention. When journalists are first responders, they face difficult decisions, the potential of physical danger and emotional risk - to others and themselves," Dr. Frank Ochberg said.

Ethical issues include the question of whether to provide aid to injured victims or help in the evacuation before emergency responders arrive. Simply doing your job and ignoring the victims' plight might be considered morally wrong by the public.

Besides the ethical issue of helping victims, reporters or photographers must consider the dangers of covering violent attacks. First responders should be aware of their safety and surroundings when they first arrive at a scene.

These risks include whether:
· The perpetrator is still in the area.
· A threat of violence continues or anything dangerous is near.
· An area is still contaminated in the event of a biological accident.
· Terrorists plan for a secondary bomb or attack.

During an address to UNESCO in Jamaica , Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute, said journalists must be more willing to accept training to protect themselves from both physical and psychological harm.

"Many still behave like cowboys, putting themselves and their associates at risk," he said.

Supervisors also must face the responsibility of sending reporters and photographers, especially younger and inexperienced ones, into potentially dangerous situations. They should seek ways to protect their journalists and advise them of appropriate precautions.

Newsday and the Washington Post have bought safety equipment to help safeguard their reporters and photographers who cover dangerous situations, according to a March 2003 story by Newsday's James T. Madore. Also, several journalists at the "Homeland Terrorism" conference said that they had received special safety training.

Howard A. Tyner, editorial vice president of Tribune Co. publishing division, told Madore that its newspapers wouldn't force journalists to cover dangerous events and would advise them of safety precautions. Those newspapers include the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Newsday.

"Remember, not only is no story worth a reporter's life, but a dead reporter isn't going to report anything," Tyner said.   Finally, and maybe most importantly, journalists and their supervisors must be aware of the psychological effects. Debriefing and even counseling may be necessary to offset the possible emotional damage caused by being a first responder.

As officer Hagen noted, today's journalists must realize that being first to a violent or terrorist attack carries significant risk - both physically and psychologically.