Holistic safety: Recommendations for journalist safety during elections

Holistic safety: Recommendations for journalist safety during elections

Jordyn Abrams


Journalist interviewing person in front of a camera

This “super-election” year (in which over 40 countries will head to the polls) poses many risks to journalist safety. While elections often have implications for global security, they can also create consequences for journalists who are on the frontlines of reporting on candidates, controversial issues, protests, and more. To increase and protect journalist safety during elections, IREX’s Securing Access to Free Expression (SAFE) program trains media professionals on how to mitigate risks when working in challenging operating environments. As tensions grow during election periods, IREX recommends that press safety is approached holistically, encompassing physical, digital, and psychosocial safety to contend with the additional threats they may encounter.

Approach safety holistically

Since 2013, the SAFE program has offered trainings that have equipped more than 8,800 media professionals with skills to identify and address physical, digital, psychosocial, and identity-based risks. From this experience, SAFE recommends that journalists recognize that their safety functions holistically. For example, a journalist covering a political rally may put themselves in physical danger if there is unrest. This physical danger may provoke fear and anxiety, which will decrease the journalist’s psychosocial well-being, which may result in them forgetting to take security measures while talking to a source. This lapse in digital security could make the journalist vulnerable to digital threats. In this way, press safety is interconnected and must be approached holistically, considering each component of the journalist's work and personhood, especially with the upcoming elections in many countries around the world.

Reduce threats to journalists’ physical safety

One way SAFE trainings support journalists is by stressing the importance of situational awareness, which is essential because journalists face immense physical risks in their day-to-day work. From covering protests and rallies to natural disaster fallout, journalists often risk their own lives to bring the public vital information. Furthermore, at times, journalists are targeted by malign actors, who may threaten or even cause physical harm to journalists solely because of the stories on which they work. During an election cycle, journalists can be more vulnerable to physical harm, as high tensions can often mean protests or civil unrest. The SAFE trainings encourage journalists to understand conflicts within the region they are in or going into; to be aware of their surroundings; and to survey the route or venue beforehand if they are covering a protest march or political rally, which can occur frequently during contested elections.

Be prepared to mitigate digital risks

SAFE digital trainers recommend journalists prepare for elections coverage including, but not limited to,  identifying internet access points, packing extra batteries and storage, and purchasing a cost-effective emergency phone and preloading emergency numbers. Being prepared for digital risks is important because journalists face daily threats, including being hacked; having sensitive, confidential, or personal data leaked; online harassment; and forced or self-censorship. During elections, journalists may experience increased scrutiny about the stories or candidates they report on, which may in turn result in increased digital attacks against them. Additionally, the risk of information manipulation increases during election periods, causing major distrust between the public and the media which furthers the difficulty journalists face.

Emphasize psychosocial well-being and self-care

SAFE recommends journalists implement daily stress management techniques, including physical exercise, grounding exercises, talking to a friend, or other techniques, because facing constant threats  can place an immense toll on journalists' psychosocial well-being. Journalists are expected to be on the frontlines of dangerous situations that often will affect themselves and the community around them, which can be distressing not only for journalists as professionals but also as human beings. During elections, journalists may experience intensified triggers and anxiety as there is increasing polarization or tension which can be exacerbated by controversial issues discussed by candidates or contested, unexpected, or unfair election results.

Promoting journalist safety in the super-election year and beyond

SAFE training supports the advancement the free press because when media professionals are physically safe, digitally secure, and maintain psychosocial well-being, they can continue their work and contribute to a healthy democracy by bringing important information to the public on their civic duties, the candidates, and general transparency of election processes. As the super-election season continues, SAFE and IREX will continue to support safe and free elections around the world by, among other things, ensuring that journalists are well equipped to mitigate risks for themselves and the people around them. To learn more ways to support media professionals in preparing for these challenges, review SAFE’s 10 tips for journalists covering elections.