Journalists and Safety Training: Experiences and Opinions

Download the Full Report Here

The Dart Center surveyed 247 journalists around the world about the safety trainings they attended, the skills they acquired and the gaps between these trainings and their professional needs on the ground. This report, prepared by an interdisciplinary team of researchers in psychology, occupational safety and journalism practice, details the results. Scroll down for the executive summary and click here for the full report.

executive summary

“Let’s compete like mad on stories, but not on safety.”
– David Rohde, Executive Board co-chair, A Culture of Safety Alliance (ACOS)

Over the last generation, safety trainings (sometimes known as Hostile Environment and First Aid Training or HEFAT) have been widely embraced by the news industry as a means of preparing journalists to cover conflict, crisis and other potentially dangerous assignments.  Yet the effectiveness, relevance and usefulness of such trainings – both generally and in terms of specific content and approaches – have not been independently assessed.

For this reason, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, surveyed a wide range of journalists around the world about the safety trainings they attended, the skills they acquired and the gaps between these trainings and their professional needs on the ground.  From October 2016 to February 2017, 247 journalists completed the survey, which was conducted by the Dart Center’s research lab housed at The University of Tulsa Department of Psychology.

This report, prepared by an interdisciplinary team of researchers in psychology, occupational safety and journalism practice, details the survey results. We make no attempt to evaluate particular commercial or nonprofit safety training providers. Instead, this report examines the various approaches to journalism safety training; how journalists assess their training experiences; and the systematic gaps and other issues suggested by their assessments.

 Critical findings, followed by distilled recommendations for the news industry and journalism safety/press-freedom advocates, are included in this executive summary. The full report can be downloaded here.


Journalist safety training has a positive impact.

Many journalists report implementing changes in behavior (such as carrying first aid kits and undertaking other preparations for assignments) as a result of training. 

  • Many journalists reported changes in their overall attitudes toward safety as a function of training.
  • Two-thirds of journalists reported using safety training skills either occasionally or frequently.
  • Journalists expressed high satisfaction with safety training content overall, as well as for the expertise of trainers.


Many journalists’ safety training is not current.

  • Only 27% of journalists surveyed reported trainings completed within the last year; 36% completed one to three years ago; 16% completed three to five years ago; and 21% completed safety training more than five years ago.
  • Fewer than half (43%) of the journalists surveyed reported having ever taken a refresher course, even though general industry standards recommend refreshers every three years.
  • Thus, at least one-third of the journalists surveyed are in need of either refresher courses or updating of skills to current knowledge, technology and threats.

Training content remains military-and-battlefield centered, despite journalists describing a far broader range of crisis reporting/hostile environment assignments. Lack of training on gender-based violence as well as other gender- and culture-related topics are major gaps, as is gender equity among trainers. Trauma-awareness and digital security trainings also remain significantly limited.

  • The most commonly taught topics included first aid (96%); personal safety including ballistic threats and equipment (86%); hostage survival (80%); vehicle/travel safety (77%) medical knowledge (75%); and risk assessment and management (71%).
  • First aid was overwhelmingly rated as one of the most useful of available training topics (79%). Medical knowledge (55%), personal safety (49%), risk and assessment management (38%), vehicle security/travel safety (37%), hostage survival (37%), and digital security (37%) were the next most highly ranked among those who received training on these topics.
  • The least commonly taught topics included cultural awareness and gender specific considerations (26%), eliciting information (12%), responding to sexual harassment/gender-based violence (8%), crime scene management (7%), and responding to online harassment (3%).
  • Only 8% of journalists reported receiving sexual harassment/gender-based violence training and only 3% reported receiving online harassment training. Even when taught, integration of gender and diversity topics received the lowest satisfaction rating.
  • Approximately half (46%) of journalists reported receiving some form of psychological trauma training. However, several journalists explicitly described the available training as cursory, dismissive or stigmatizing. 
  • Barely more than one-third of journalists (35%) reported receiving digital security training, but among those who did receive such training, it was highly valued.
  • Journalists consistently expressed a need and desire for:
    • gender-based;
    • regionally relevant;
    • and psychological trauma components.

            These three topics were consistently rated as gaps in available training.

The use of kidnap or hostage scenarios in HEFAT trainings proved a divisive topic.

  • Approximately one-third of journalists (37%) rated the value of hostage or kidnap simulations very highly.
  • However, a vocal minority questioned the value of advice given and/or the possible deleterious psychological impact on trainees.

Cost remains a significant barrier to access.

  • 57% of journalists surveyed reported their safety trainings was paid by their employers.
  • Only 9% paid for training out of their own pocket.
  • The remaining 33% relied on charitable organizations, NGOs, or a mix of funding sources.
  • Cost also seems to be a barrier in accessing refresher courses and other training updates.


Based on this survey, the Dart Center research team suggests the following considerations for training organizations and news outlets:

  1. Increase the availability of sexual violence and harassment training. The gap between available training and the needs asserted by journalists surveyed was glaring on this point. As demonstrated in journalism and other fields, these are not necessarily gender-specific issues but rather are occupational safety issues that concern all employees. These issues have particular importance for journalists who must navigate boundaries with sources and negotiate unfamiliar environments, often under high-stress conditions.
  2. Ensure that safety trainers are knowledgeable about gender and cultural issues.
    1. Journalists who reported receiving gender-focused and/or cultural trainings were more satisfied with safety trainings overall than journalists who did not complete gender and cultural components, suggesting a desire for this curriculum.
    2. Tailor information so it is relevant to the geographic area and cultural context in which journalists will be working.
    3. We also urge safety training providers to diversify the faculty of HEFAT courses to help ensure that these concerns are given priority.
  3. Emphasize the importance of trauma knowledge and coping skills and address stigma attached to emotional and physical reactions to extreme stress.
    1. All safety training should include modules devoted to encouraging trauma awareness and best practices in self-care and collegial support.
    2. Consider employing more mental health professionals as trainers for modules on this topic. (Of the trauma-related trainings reported on in this survey, only 15% were led in part by trainers with mental health expertise).
    3. Prepare HEFAT trainers to communicate accurate and non-stigmatizing information on psychological resilience, self-care and trauma awareness.
  4. Increase the availability of digital security training, which is currently offered in only 35% of safety trainings, but when included is rated highly. This is another glaring gap. It should be noted that digital security is closely tied to the threat of kidnapping, targeting with weaponry, and other established physical threats.
  5. Continue to use practical hostile-environment scenarios, but evaluate if there may be unintended consequences for some trainees. Specifically, kidnapping scenarios may raise issues for some individuals. Therefore, evaluating the longer-term value and impact of hostage scenarios, and assessing which journalists benefit most from such training, should be explored further.
  6. Ensure the availability and affordability of refresher and update courses to keep journalists’ training current.
  7. Emphasize resources for journalists who have limited organizational support or who are working as freelancers without the benefit of established news organizations behind them. 
  8. Sharing information about specific content offered in various HEFAT training may be helpful in future evaluations of trainings utility.


  • Limitations of Sample. The overwhelming majority of journalists who responded to this survey were news professionals with many years’ experience and multiple deployments in crisis zones. (The average age of respondents was 41, and average years worked was 16.) These results do not necessarily reflect the needs of younger journalists or of local journalists permanently residing in hostile environments.
  • Timeframe of Trainings. Since almost three in four journalists surveyed reported their most recent training was over one year ago, any changes in curriculum that occurred within the past year are not represented in this survey. It is also possible that some participants’ recollections of training elements may not be accurate because of the length of time between the training and survey completion.
  • Inconsistent training curricula. The content categories were created from publicly available information about training curricula.  The exact content of topics under a particular heading may vary widely across trainings. Conclusions may not apply universally to all trainings.