Ex-foreign correspondent reflects on risks for US reporters

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FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. There is increasing concern for the safety of journalists covering protests at state capitals across the U.S., and in Washington. Packing a gas mask and helmet has become the new normal. It's starting to look, just a bit, like what foreign correspondents face in the world's conflict zones. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

SALEM, Ore. – In the summer of 2000, I was among a group of foreign correspondents, photographers and video journalists who went to England to attend a hostile environment-first aid training course.

The trainers, all former Royal Marine commandos, taught us how to gingerly probe our way out of a minefield, about booby traps and treating gunshot and shrapnel wounds. Instructors posed as casualties, complete with fake blood squirting from wounds, and assessed whether our slapping on of bandages and tourniquets would have saved lives or led to deaths.

I know the importance of this kind of training and preparation after a quarter-century covering news overseas or managing coverage, including of wars, a coup, terrorist attacks and other violence. I’ve come under fire several times.

This week, now as a reporter in Oregon, I attended virtual training by the state police on what to do if there's a shooting rampage in the Oregon Capitol. The Legislature’s leadership, for the first time, included journalists in the training after several were assaulted by rioters outside the state Capitol in December.

When I drive to cover protests these days, I throw a gas mask into the car. I also think about safety in ways that remind me of my time working in other countries.

Covering protests in America is starting to look a little bit like reporting from an overseas hot spot. Even before rioters got into Congress last week, producing the kinds of images viewers in America are more used to seeing in countries going through civil strife, journalists in state capitals had been approaching their jobs differently. Some use bulletproof vests and helmets, some organizations hire security, and safety is a central part of coverage planning. All of this was unheard of a couple of years ago.

Thankfully, we are a long way from the kind of conflict coverage that colleagues and I experienced overseas. Alongside an Associated Press photographer and a cameraman working for the BBC, I came under heavy gunfire from Lesotho army troops during an invasion by the South African National Defense Force in 1998. We had to abandon our bullet-riddled car and lay as flat as possible in a ditch for six hours as bullets whined inches from our heads, sounding like lethal bees. We managed to run for our lives after nightfall.

One of my AP colleagues who later came from Nairobi to help cover that invasion, a gregarious American TV producer and cameraman named Myles Tierney, was shot dead less than four months later by a rebel child soldier in Sierra Leone.