Tag Archives: reporting

Journalists: “Stay Safe” while on assignment

By Christopher B. Daly

Journalists face an unprecedented array of threats: the traditional physical dangers of covering riots and fires; the new online threats posed by trolls; partisan attacks on coverage someone doesn’t like; electronic hacking of our phones, laptops, and other gear.

At Boston University, where I teach journalism, my colleagues and I are trying to develop materials to help our students “Stay Safe” while they are on assignment — reporting, shooting videos, taking photos, recording audio, or whatever. This was prompted by the horrors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing (which took place very near our campus) and renewed by the recent denunciations of the news media by President Trump and his supporters.

Below is an attempt to distill best practices from two conferences. If you have experiences or advice to share, please leave a comment.



In rare and unpredictable circumstances, our work as journalists requires us to approach dangerous situations and take calculated risks. Other times, an apparently benign assignment can turn threatening. Wherever your assignment or curiosity takes you, keep these principles in mind:


DON’T GO ALONE. If you can, go with another journalist. In any case, always make sure someone knows where you are – an editor, a colleague, a friend, a parent. Stay in touch with your “desk.” If there is a calamity, post to Facebook or some other platform, as soon as it is safe, so your friends and family know that you’re OK.


DON’T MAKE THINGS WORSE. Do not interfere with “first responders” – their work is even more important than yours. Do not take a risk that results in you needing to be rescued.


DON’T GET IN THE WAY. Take up a position where you can see but where no further danger will come sneaking up from behind. Cover your backside. At a fire, stand upwind, so that the smoke and cinders are not blowing at you. Don’t stand right above a working fire hose; they are under a lot of pressure. At a bombing, remember that bombers often plant a second bomb, timed to go off right around the time you would be arriving.


DO BE PREPARED. Wear sensible clothes, especially sturdy shoes, even on routine assignments. Pick clothes with lots of pockets. Bring all the gear you depend on, including extra batteries. Wear a press badge on a lanyard, so it’s visible. Carry a pencil or two, just in case your ink runs out or freezes.


DO MAINTAIN “SITUATIONAL AWARENESS.” Look around and listen to the environment, even while doing an interview or taking a photo. In disasters, things change fast. Be ready to run.


DO WHAT YOU’RE TOLD. Within reason, obey the lawful safety dictates of firefighters, police officers and other first responders. (This does not mean you have to submit to unconstitutional restrictions, but unless you bring your own army, you may have to fight that one another day.)


DO TAKE A COURSE IN FIRST AID, from a group like RISC, and consider a course in self-defense.




–Press pass, visibly displayed on a lanyard.


–Identification (and, where appropriate, passport).


–Cell phone, with charger and external backup power supply.


–Digital camera, with charger and external backup power.


–Cash and credit card.


–A bandana (which can be used to protect your face from smoke or tear gas).


–A headscarf.


–A bottle of water (and some kind of energy bar).


–Collapsable monopod or hiking staff (or, a flexible mini-tripod).


–Batteries of all kinds.


–Pens, mechanical pencils, etc.


–Flash drive or external hard drive.


–Mini-binoculars (I keep these around for birding, and they can come in handy).


–Comfortable clothes with lots of pockets.


Most of these things should be in your backpack at all times. You never know!




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Filed under broadcasting, digital media, Journalism, local news, media, news, Photography, Photojournalism, press

Interrogation: Jack Bauer v. Frank Columbo

By Christopher B. Daly

Recently, my colleague Doug Starr has gotten a good deal of deserved attention for his work on the subject of interrogation, including a fact piece in the New Yorker and an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Doug is an experienced science journalist who has written important books on the history of the global trade in blood (Blood)  as well as the birth of forensic science in late 19th C. France (The Killer of Little Shepherds). In turning his attention to the science of interrogation, Doug found that actually there is no science to support a widespread suite of interrogation techniques. The approach most commonly used by U.S. police departments is prone to producing false confessions.

Turns out, there is a better way:

What works best is to calmly ask a suspect some open-ended questions. That forces the suspect to generate a narrative. So far, so good. Then, you check the parts that you can against any external sources. Then, you have the suspect tell the “story” again, looking for discrepancies, even tiny ones. Repeat as needed.

No shouting, no threats. No good cop/bad cop routine. No torture.

What strikes me is that this interrogation technique corresponds to the approach used by another occupational group: journalists. This is essentially what reporters do: ask questions, listen to the answers, check the information against other sources, then go back over the same ground again — as many times as necessary.





The model that I try to steer my students toward is not Jack Bauer on the TV series “24.”




Instead, I recommend Frank Columbo on the eponymous TV show from the 1970s and 80s. Never in a hurry, forever dressed in that rumpled trenchcoat, Frank Columbo was always willing to appear to be the dumbest guy in the room and never hesitated to admit

ColumboDVD3 that he just couldn’t understand a case and ask a suspect to run through a story just once more.

Here’s a glimpse from Wikipedia:

Columbo is polite. He has a keen intellect and good taste which he hides very well. Though a bit dated, his clothes are high quality. Columbo never divulges his first name. His absent-minded approach to cases, his distracted outbursts and constant pestering of suspects is his modus operandi. He is gifted at lulling anyone guilty into a false sense of security. Often he would pursue a line of question that brings about minimal information, not pressing enough to cause the suspect any alarm. Columbo would thank the suspect, and turn to leave – only to turn back at the last second, claiming to suddenly have remembered something (stating, “Oh, uh, one more thing…” or some variant thereof), and present the suspect with a far more serious and vital question, catching the suspect off guard. This is referred to as “the false exit”.

But I don’t think that quite captures Columbo’s genius. Like a good, veteran reporter, Columbo approaches each case serene in the knowledge that if he asks enough questions and listens carefully enough, the suspect will eventually tell him everything he needs to know.

That’s really all there is to it:



Ask again.






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To all student journalists: Stay Safe!

By Christopher B. Daly 

Are you a student journalist? Are you being asked to get out of the classroom and “learn by doing” through street reporting?

Are you a journalism professor? Do you send your students out to cover real events?

If so, you should know about a program we are developing in the Journalism Department at Boston University called “Stay Safe.”

Screen Shot 2013-09-20 at 11.01.42 AM








Here’s an introduction, based on a panel discussion we held in September for more than 100 students.

The idea is simple: When the April 2013 Boston Marathon turned in an instant from a feel-good feature story into a violent tragedy, many of us on the Journalism faculty realized that we need to do a better job to train our students in basic safety techniques. Working with veteran correspondents from our own faculty, as well as front-line professional reporters and photographers, we are trying to distill the hard-won experience of covering wars, riots, fires, blizzards, and other forms of mayhem into a set of practical guidelines. Before our students venture out again, we want to make sure they go out there equipped with the “best practices” we can share with them.

Have a look at the video. Still to come: a permanent space on the BU Journalism website with guidelines, training videos, links, and a display of recommended gear for all student journalists.

If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments here, or email Chris Daly: chrisdaly44@gmail.com.

Thanks. . .  and stay safe!

Boston University journalism student Kiva Liu, working near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, moments before two bombs exploded.

Boston University journalism student Kiva Liu, working near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, moments before two bombs exploded. She survived.

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New rules for spying on journalists

By Christopher B. Daly 

No surprise. The government has decided that it does not want to completely retreat from the field of spying on, investigating, and prosecuting journalists who seek and report the truth about our government’s operations. The Justice Dept is willing to make a few concessions, in acknowledgement that it recently got caught over-reaching in a number of cases. But it is nowhere near saying that the First Amendment’s guarantee of press freedom means what it says.

That’s my understanding of what AG Eric Holder announced yesterday in compliance with a demand from his boss, President Obama.

–Here’s coverage by the Times and the Post. (Complete with lots of comments that should not be missed.)

–Here’s the text of the Justice Dept report. (I am posting this in good faith; I hope the Justice Dept is doing the same and is not hiding some classified, redacted version in which they take it all back.)

Essentially, it amounts to this: Trust us. In the future, the attorney general will continue to make judgment calls and do all the balancing of press freedom and national security. If you don’t like it, tough. There’s no appeal, no remedy, no oversight.

If in the future, we have more secrecy and less transparency, this will be part of the reason.

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The global state of press freedom

It’s not very good, according to the latest assessment from Reporters without Borders. Here are the details, from the Paris-based advocacy group’s latest report. (What does it mean when there is more press freedom in Germany than in America?)

Here is the big picture:



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The power of reporting

By Christopher B. Daly

Today presents a good example of what makes the New York Times so valuable. When the “controversy” over the anti-Muhammad movie called “Innocence of Muslims” broke a couple of months ago, many news organizations covered it for a few days. Eventually, to judge by the evidence so far, they all threw in the towel and gave up trying to get to the bottom of the story of the Coptic deadbeat/activist Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (if that really is his name). All except the Times. In today’s edition, the paper presents a page-1 story with a double byline. Top billing went to Pulitzer-winner Serge Kovaleski, backed up by Brooks Barnes. But that’s not all. At the bottom of the story is a credit line that mentions four more people:

Ana Facio-Krajcer and Noah Gilbert contributed reporting from Los Angeles, and Mai Ayyad from Cairo. Jack Begg contributed research.

So, that is six journalists and counting. All of which is not to mention the folks on the photo desk and the several layers of editors who worked on this piece as well. In all, I would estimate that the full team was in the low double digits.

That is real reporting power. That is the Times’s way of saying: We don’t care how long it takes or how many people it takes, if we get interested in something, we are going to pursue it.

Is the Times perfect? Does the Times pursue every story you would like it to. Obviously not, but where would we be without it?

A man identified as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (in white scarf) engages in a “perp walk” in California in September. Photo: Bret Hartman / Reuters

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Journalism issues galore

By Christopher B. Daly

Lots to catch up with this Labor Day:

–A very thoughtful piece by Sasha Issenberg from the Sunday Timesabout a possible skills gap between political reporters and political operatives.

Nice slideshow goes with it, including this photo from the 1960 Kennedy campaign:

Paul Schutzer/Time & Life Pictures — Getty Images

Paul Schutzer/Time & Life Pictures — Getty Images


I wonder what Nate Silver thinks of all this?






–A new David Carr column about Reddit. (which may be the ugliest site on the Web.)


–A look at the top lawyer at Twitter, who makes the day-to-day calls on freedom of speech.


–A fascinating peek at how the New Orleans Times-Picayune is tip-toeing across the scary rope bridge to the future. Here’s a prior post.


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“Wait, wait”: Would someone please impose an embargo on the news media

By Christopher B. Daly 

Kudos to the SCOTUSblog for this remarkable tick-tock on what went wrong in the initial reporting about the Supreme Court ruling on the Obama health care plan back on June 28. Tom Goldstein, the publisher of SCOTUSblog, has put together a 7,000-word reconstruction of the first half hour of reporting, focusing on the screw-ups  at CNN and Fox News. He has done us all a service with his meticulous, minute-by-minute (and sometimes second-by-second) narrative of that day’s hits, balks, run-downs, and errors.

What this post-game review suggests to me is that, first and foremost, the news business needs to do better. As a former wire service reporter (10 years with the AP, both on desks and in the field), I appreciate the need for speed. SCOTUS decisions move markets; they sometimes hand the White House to one party over the other. Often, they are the epitome of breaking news. That said, it is insane for reporters to cover Supreme Court opinions on the fly. No one benefits. In Goldstein’s tick-tock, the description of the gyrations of the front-line legal correspondents reminds me of nothing so much as an episode of “Iron Chef” — in which highly talented people are subjected to insanely artificial difficulties (“OK, now you have two minutes to make a three-course meal out of kale and strawberries. GO!”). There is absolutely no reason to turn this scheduled event into a speed-reading contest.

The Supreme Court also has some lessons to learn. It is insane that the Court does not post its opinions, in full, on the Web at 10:00:01. Why should the White House and Congress have to wait? Why should citizens have to wait? Why should prisoners facing execution or stock traders or anyone have to wait? In this day and age, to hand out paper decisions is an affront.

But most important of all, after reading Goldstein’s report, I am strengthened in my belief that the Court and the news business need to get together on a slow day and figure out a better system for these kind of hand-offs. The answer is staring them in the face: an old-fashioned news embargo. The Court could simply identify 10-20 of the top court reporters — all vetted, credentialed experts — and invite them to come to the building at 8 a.m. The journalists could all then be locked in a room (like jurors) with no wi-fi access. They could then take their time to read the opinion (in full), digest it, and craft a coherent and accurate story. At 10:00, those stories could all be released, all at once. That way, all the news organizations that care about speed would have a multi-way tie and the issue of who was “first” would be moot. That way, the first version would also be the right version. That way, the public gets a full, careful, accurate version at the earliest possible moment.

P.S.: The world would certainly be a better place if people would stop posting comments just to gloat. Goldstein mentions a couple of these kind of comments that SCOTUSblog received from readers rubbing it in that CNN and Fox were right and SCOTUSblog was wrong. In retrospect, they look like the doofuses they are.

Twitter postings / Topsy

Twitter postings / Topsy

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Filed under blogging, CNN, Fox News, Journalism, Supreme Court

Who reports?

By Chris Daly

The always-interesting Nate Silver, in a recent post, put his finger on a really key issue in journalism: who does the reporting that everyone else fights over, analyzes, re-purposes, aggregates, or just steals?

Silver did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and came up with this chart:

(I must say I am very gratified to see that two of the top 10 — The AP and The Washington Post — are the places were I spent most of my years as a journalist.)

As anyone in the news business could tell you, there are no real surprises here. Silver is trying to identify who does the bulk of the original reporting about national and international affairs for American audiences. (He is not looking here at local news, which is another story.)

Two news organizations in particular stand out, almost in a class by themselves.

First is the AP, the enormous but nearly invisible news organization that still operates in every state in America and most countries around the world. The non-profit cooperative functions as a giant wholesaler of news — gathering, re-writing, shooting, editing, and distributing vast amounts of stories, images, sound, and data every hour of every day. Almost all of AP’s output is delivered to other news organizations, and not directly to the public. So, most people think they “get their news” from whatever retail outlet they happen to frequent, rather than from the ultimate source, which is often the AP.


Number Two on the list is The New York Times. Again, no real surprise. Say what you will about its management, business model, stock price and all the rest, the Times has no real peer among “general news” organizations. (By that, I mean organizations that have a broader sweep than a particular topical niche like business, sports, or celebrities).

The point is worth making again: reporting is expensive (and sometimes dangerous), and the world would be a better place if more people got out, walked around, took notes, made photos, and shared what they found.

‘Nuf said.


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