Foreign correspondents schooled in tough lessons.
By Erian Amor De Los Reyes
During the Ebola crisis in 2014, newscasts from several stations acted fast and sent their foreign correspondence teams to cover the story. Reporter teams toiled alongside one another — and amongst the infected. In the midst of the cramped and densely populated city of Monrovia, Adrienne Arsenault travelled halfway across the world, where the consequences of a handshake could be fatal.
Foreign correspondents chase the stories—with very real danger.
Arsenault covered a wide array of stories and in the last ten years added to her resume with coverage from the tsunami aftermath in Sri Lanka to political uprising in Libya and the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.
The thrill may interest many but only a few understand the work and training that goes into covering stories in a crisis in a foreign land — be able to work through a crisis situation.
“I understand it completely when people say I want to be a foreign correspondent, I totally understand it but, I think it get’s romanticized,” says Arsenault, who’s a senior correspondent of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and was named the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association’s journalist of the year in 2005.
Armed with a story to cover and a network backing, a foreign correspondent’s job appears to be loaded with perks. Being able to fly to foreign destinations and shedding light on stories.
Through her years arsenault has fielded her fair share of ‘how do you become a foreign correspondent’ questions. The allure of foreign correspondence can bring many young aspiring journalists calling.
But the stark reality is: combat aid training and mock kidnappings are just a couple of the lessons foreign correspondents are required to know according to Arsenault.
Though not everyone has to take hostile environment training, it is recommended those trained have to renew and upgrade their skills every two years.
“Part of that is to help you remember and another part of that is because the world is always changing and you try to be as current as you can,” says Arsenault.
Ian Kalushner, who is part of CBC’s Foreign Content Unit as a senior producer, agrees, “It’s very hard for freelancers to receive this training.”
He says CBC correspondents obtain environment and situational training, hostile environment awareness training (H.E.A.T.), kidnap training, combat first aid and post trauma treatment. Correspondents get this training in the span of five days and renew it every two years.
As the foreign assignment editor in Toronto he is responsible for ensuring that foreign correspondents news teams at CBC receive their training. He has worked overseas in foreign bureaus with other news organizations, all over the middle east. Kalushner says though most correspondents remember the kidnap training, focusing on situational and hostile environment training is just as valuable.
This ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst’ was Jeffrey Kofman’s mindset for many years as a former American Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) news correspondent. He says that around 75 per cent is first aid training and the rest is kidnap training.
For 14 years Kofman covered a variety of stories that have sent him to the northern desert of Chile to cover 33 trapped miners in 2010, to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and to North Africa where he covered the Arab spring in 2011. He says his training has equipped him to confidently cover stories in high crisis areas and though he may not have used all his training he still remembers some vividly.
During his recounts of a mock kidnapping, Kofman says despite all the training, at the end there are no clear solutions — and sometimes you just won’t know the answer.
“In kidnap training, you actually get kidnapped — and it’s terrifying,” says Kofman. Along with a couple of other journalists from CNN, Kofman was forced into a kidnap situation. Respresentitives of a nameless country took them and forced him and his colleagues to the ground, a gun to his head and on his knees, handcuffed and hooded.
“And even though you know that these people weren’t gonna hurt you, the sense of powerlessness is really real,” says Kofman.
When one of the men from the group stood up for one of the women. He was shot.
Though this was a scripted scenario, kidnap training is essential for the field. It is a grim reminder of a possibility, grounded in real world experience brought by the darkest parts of humanity.
Statistics say it might not be as bleak. According to a U.S. Department of Justice report nearly 90 per cent of abductees are freed within 24 hours. Kofman says, “keep telling yourself that the odds are with you. Stay calm and don’t draw attention to yourself.”
Stories often take the toll on the reporter and Kofman anchors himself down before he allows the weight of the training and being out on the field affect him. “You have to compartmentalize your fear when you do this,” says Kofman. During his Haiti coverage of the 2004 revolution,, Kofman admits that he paniced.
“You can’t — you can’t think when you panic… I’m the correspondent, I’m meant to be the team leader. It just doesn’t set a very good example,” says Kofman who knows his position as the correspondent forces him to always be anchored in crisis situations.
A crisis situation can evolve through the time; a correspondent’s training and tools evolve with them. Kalushner who is a colleague of Arsenault, says it’s part of their training to be more familiar with the equipment they will be working with in the field.
Arsenault says having a network backing not only allows correspondents to shed light on hard to reach stories but it also ensures they are never alone on a coverage.
“Every shoot you go on is different, you take different types of first aid kits, different types of protective gear. You have different protocols,” says Arsenault. The team must keep in contact with the network at all times and this could mean a phone call or tools CBC can provide. “Sometimes you wear a tracker that can tell someone back at the office [where you are] at any given moment. There are prerecorded text messages on some of these trackers. ‘Approaching a check-point. Cleared a check point. Help.’”
Correspondents may also experience situation where their first aid training can become useful. However, both Arsenault and Kofman say their training is to help the team out. They both understand the moral dilemma when it comes to helping in an emergency situation that does not involve the team. It’s never a black and white, good vs. evil situation. The grey areas are where the correspondent must make the decision to use their training or not.
Arsenault says that their training is to ensure that individuals in the team are alright and help the team get out of a bad situation. “When you go somewhere, that’s either a disaster or there’s been a conflict. It’s important that you’re not a strain on the resources of a community that’s already suffering,” says Arsenault.
While Nepal, her team brought their own tents and source of electricity so as not to strain the community. Arsenault ensures her team is as self-sufficient as possible.
Kofman has a different take when it comes to using his training on someone outside the team. In his coverage of the Arab revolution in 2011, Kofman and his crew witnessed a rebel soldier bleed to death after being shot in the neck. “It’s devastating to watch someone die — I’ve seen it happen many times – You never get used to seeing someone die,” says Kofman.
Kofman says correspondents must remember that they are not doctors and must not help the locals. In a practice disaster scenario, an actress approached his group begging for her child to be helped. Someone decided to look at the baby only to find out the baby had been dead for quite some time. They were blamed for the death of the infant.
The internal battle between what seems like the right thing to do and what you should do is a line correspondents often come to. Though it’s comforting to have the training, Kofman remembers the message, “You are not a doctor; you’re learning this to help one another,” says Kofman.
As foreign correspondents, can be romanticized, Arsenault fears that many young journalists sign up to something they’re not completely certain of. “I worry so much about people who go off on their own. We’re very lucky to go with an organization like the CBC. If we [signal] on our tracker there is somebody on the other end who’s paying attention,” says Arsenault.
After many years in the field she still worries about those who go off on their own, “I’m scared for them. Often.”