ACOS Alliance Expands Its Reach with Help from the OPC and OPC Foundation

by William J. Holstein

The culture of Safety alliance (ACOS) is expanding its geographic reach and the range of support it is providing to help editors, producers and freelance journalists of all stripes as they seek to cover an increasingly dangerous world.

The alliance, born in the aftermath of the grisly murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff five years ago in Syria, has promulgated a set of best practices it believes will help editors better manage freelance and local journalists, and has supported or organized a series of trainings around the world.

In cooperation with VICE, Buzzfeed, The Associated Press, Reuters and the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at Columbia, ACOS has been involved in Hostile Environment and First Aid Training (HEFAT), in Lebanon, the United States, Kenya, Thailand, Ecuador and Colombia. The OPC has supported trainings in Nairobi and Beirut with money raised at last year’s Annual Awards Dinner. The OPC Foundation serves as the financial sponsor for ACOS, handling flows of money from the MacArthur and Open Society foundations. (Full disclosure: I sit on the boards of the OPC, OPCF and ACOS.)

Now ACOS is expanding its range of activities by facilitating the launch of insurance programs for all freelancers and local journalists around the world. Its annual coordination meeting in early December in New York at Columbia University was attended by a growing number of global organizations, helping ACOS move beyond its Anglo-American origins. Some 90 people participated. Attendees were present from Britain, Colombia, France, Germany, Mexico and Sweden. The number of organizations represented also increased. In attendance were the executive director of ACOS, Elisabet Cantenys, and the president, Maria Salazar-Ferro, emergencies director for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“I’m so excited about all that has been achieved in five years,” said Diane Foley, mother of Jim Foley and founder of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. “There is nothing like working together as opposed to doing it in isolation. All of this is going to make a difference.” Also present was Art Sotloff, father of Steve, who founded a Miami-based organization, called the Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial 2Lives Foundation, to give scholarships and provide training.

The coordination session this year blossomed into three different tranches of activity. First, an editors’ workshop was held for the second year and was well-attended by major news organizations. Secondly, a separate working group on helping journalists deal with trauma and post-trauma stress, coordinated by the Dart Center, vowed to map out and publicize all the resources that are available from different counseling and treatment organizations. Many journalists are traumatized by covering conflicts, terrorism, riots or other scenes of devastation, but do not know where to find help.

The third major area of focus, and the one where I spent the most time listening, centered on safety training. It is an exceptionally difficult challenge. The profession is recognizing that not everyone needs full HEFAT training. And some providers of HEFAT training, particularly those with military backgrounds, may push too far by putting hoods over the heads of participants and subjecting them to verbal abuse, simulating the conditions of being kidnapped. Moreover, it is becoming clear that journalists also need training in how to manage their online social media presences, how to maintain the security of their devices and avoid surveillance, how to contend with legal challenges that are used in some countries to muzzle the press, how to provide first aid, and how to deal with gender-related issues. Women journalists are particularly vulnerable to online harassment by governments, criminal groups and others.

There is no one-size-fits-all package. How long should a training last? Is three days long enough? There is no firm agreement. And Eliot Stempf, security adviser at Buzzfeed, argued that training should be individualized to reflect the nationality and experience of a particular journalist and the nature of the challenges that journalist is likely to face. Nor has the industry agreed on how often any type of safety training should be refreshed. Is it good enough to do it every three years? There is no agreement.

What makes the issue even more complicated is that no one agrees on what constitutes valid training. There are a wide variety of companies offering different types of training. If the BBC puts a stringer through its security course provided by an outside vendor and that stringer goes to The Associated Press or Reuters to try to get an assignment, those news organizations may not recognize the validity of the training that the freelancer obtained from the BBC. Editors and producers may argue that the way their newsrooms operate is different from other organizations. A freelancer’s employment options are thus limited.

To begin tackling the problem, ACOS and the Frontline Freelance Register in May formed a steering committee consisting of Buzzfeed, VICE, the BBC, NBC News, CNN, Free Press Unlimited, the Afghan Journalist Safety Committee of the International Media Support organization, the Dart Center and various freelancers to try to define the elements of solid HEFAT training. The steering committee presented their findings, which can be seen on the incredibly valuable ACOS website,

One embryonic idea that emerged was that the ACOS steering committee could become the industry’s de facto clearing house for approving and validating different trainings so that news organizations would have a guide as to which are valid and which are not. Participants agreed that would be difficult, but there is no other central body even attempting to perform that role.

One of the newest twists to the whole issue of training is whether augmented and virtual reality can or should play a role. Two British organizations offering such training were present. One is called Also Known As and the second is SilkRoad Training, which was founded by a pair of former British military men. I put on one of SilkRoad’s VR headsets and found myself in the middle of an attack by invisible gunmen on a stationary vehicle on a road in a jungle-type setting. The firing was coming from the left front side of the vehicle and I stood with three unarmed men wearing body armor on the right side of the vehicle as they debated their options. Taking shelter behind the engine block is the only real way to avoid bullets because that is the only solid part of a vehicle. Even better is figuring out which way to run (away from the guns, obviously) and how to stay low and minimize one’s exposure.

Online training sessions also are popping up and many specific segments of training courses are becoming available. They might solve some of the training dilemmas – journalists in harm’s way can find the specific type of training they need on their smart phones just before they truly need it.

A final theme of debate is, when should journalists start getting trained? Some graduate schools of journalism are building safety training into their curricula. And the Foley Foundation is adapting some of that course material for undergraduate students as well. The trick is to inform aspiring correspondents without overwhelming them with fear.

Overall, the sheer success of what ACOS has achieved was evident at the Columbia meetings by the number of organizations taking part. Aside from the groups mentioned above, the meeting counted participants from the International News Safety Institute, International Women’s Media Foundation, Reporters Without Borders, Rory Peck Trust, RISC, WAN-IFRA, the Fundación Para La Libertad de Prensa (FLIP, based in Colombia), Global Investigative Journalism Network, Freedom House, International Committee of the Red Cross, IREX and Free Press Unlimited, among others.