Reporting in a high-risk place? Here’s how you can prepare.

GroundTruth fellows Nichole Sobecki (left) and Laura Heaton (right) stand between two cannons on their reporting trip to Somalia, where they documented links between drought and violent conflict.

This article originally appeared on Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists. You can subscribe to Navigator here

Editor’s Note: The reporting journey into Somalia by GroundTruth’s Laura Heaton and Nichole Sobecki holds valuable lessons for any emerging correspondent thinking about taking on an assignment in a dangerous corner of the world. As Laura writes in her essay for Navigator, very careful planning, risk assessment, hostile environment and first aid training, a solid insurance policy as well as a detailed system for checking in from the field were all part of the preparation before they hit the ground in Somalia. After 18 months of reporting in the field, including four trips to Somalia, documenting the links between climate change and violent extremism in Somalia, Laura and Nichole recently had their work featured on ABC Nightline and Foreign Policy. Please be sure to check that work out — it’s an example of thorough preparation, excellent storytelling and reporting from the next generation of journalists. — Charles M. Sennott, Founder and Executive Director

Even journalists with the most attentive editors are ultimately responsible for their own safety – they’re the ones navigating security challenges many miles away, after all. Here are some tested tips for how you can make your reporting journey more secure ahead of departure.

1. Take a HEFAT (Hostile Environments and Emergency First Aid Training) course: In preparing for reporting in Somalia and the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, I took the 3-day HEFAT course with Global Journalist Security in Nairobi. Organizations like Rory Peck Trust and RISC are great too. You’ll learn how to develop situational awareness, self-care, basic first aid and other essential knowledge for challenges that might arise in the field. The cost was $1,645 per person, which GroundTruth covered as part of its commitment to field safety. GroundTruth is one of the founding members of the ACOS Alliance, “a coalition of major news companies, journalism organizations, and freelancers, seeking to develop worldwide freelance protection standards.” Read through ACOS’s standards and practices carefully and collaborate with the news organization you are working with to be sure you both follow the guidelines.

2. Do your homework and prepare a risk assessment: You’ll need a careful analysis of possible threats and how to best avoid or respond to them. Acquaint yourself with the area where you’re looking to report. What are the key towns? The main roads? What are the major features of the region – rivers, mountains, deserts, etc. Search for the names of these places and see what’s happened there lately. Example: Ahead of a trip to Somalia, I Googled “Galgala Mountains + Somalia” and saw that the extremist group al-Shabab has long used the place as their hideout, and that an IED had recently exploded on a road there. Important to know.

Academics who have studied a particular region can be excellent sources of advice and on-the-ground contacts – and are often eager to share some of their hard-earned knowledge. Ask for recs about safe places to stay, safe drivers to hire, interpreters with language expertise and local ties to enhance your safety. For instance, if there’s a dispute going down between two groups of people, find out how the profile of your interpreter and driver fit into the local equation and don’t assume anyone can go anywhere.

Non-governmental organizations can also be great allies for sorting out complicated logistics. They typically employ security advisors who monitor changing conditions and can give informal advice on your itinerary before you travel and while you’re en route. For liability reasons, NGOs might distance themselves from you and your plans, which can make you feel like you’re on your own out there. But it’s worth noting that most international organizations have stricter security protocols than we journalists can keep to, since we’ve got a story to chase. Regardless, listen carefully and consult others as well.

Additional info to find out: Who do you need to announce your presence to when you first arrive? There’s often a government official, police chief, or army commander who will be pissed if he (yeah, most often he) finds out you’re on his turf without paying a courtesy call. Where are the airstrips in the area in case you need to be evacuated? How’s the cell reception?

3. Get insurance. You’ve gotta have proper health insurance before you hit the field. Talk with your editor about getting it covered by the news organization you’re working with. You can either work through your existing provider to add on coverage or buy hostile environment insurance through organizations like Reporters Without Borders or The International Federation of Journalists.

4. Make a game plan with your check-in crew: Before you head out, write up an itinerary for your reporting trip (including details about where you’ll stay each night, with as much info as you’ve got) and circulate it to a trusted check-in team. Guard these details carefully; you don’t want anyone – even your driver and translator – to know your every move and be able to anticipate when you’ll be where.

Designate a time each evening to check in by calling or sending a text message to your check-in team, ideally when you’re likely done for the night. Map out what your check-in people should do if you don’t get in touch. Give yourself a little wiggle room – perhaps an hour – so that you avoid setting off alarm bells too often when you’re just finishing up an interview or out of cell range until you pull into town. If that time passes, check-in people first check with each other, finding out whether anyone has heard from you.

If you do go off the radar, your check-in crew should have some idea of where to begin their search for you, starting with those traveling with you – your driver, your translator – the place where you’re staying, and even the experts you connected with before your trip.

There are some very sobering forms to fill out that include proof-of-life questions in case the worst happens. Also, consider appointing someone other than your spouse or your mother as your primary check-in contact. Yes, you want someone who will notice and be concerned if you miss a nightly check-in or if you signal you’re having a problem. But you also want someone with some familiarity with the type of place where you’re reporting – a fellow journalist, a well-traveled and organized friend – who will keep a level head as they hustle to give you the support you need. Do include the contact information of a significant other or parent for your check-in crew. Maybe you sent a pic to your boyfriend as you headed out on that anti-piracy patrol? Could be useful info for tracking you down.

No. 5 on Laura's safety list: "Take a pic with your team." Laura is third from the left, alongside her reporting partner Nichole Sobecki. (GroundTruth)

No. 5 on Laura’s safety list: “Take a pic with your team.” Laura is third from the left, alongside her reporting partner Nichole Sobecki. (GroundTruth)

5. Take a pic with your team: Once you’re ready to set off with your driver, translator and any security people traveling with you, stage a group photo – and be sure everyone’s face is clearly visible. It’s not just a nice souvenir; this photo is a helpful record of who’s who in your entourage. Send it along to your check-in crew, along with full names and phone numbers of each person.

6. Keep up the good work: Even with the best laid plans, security assessment is a key part of your job while reporting. If needed, adjust your itinerary accordingly and let your check-in crew know if you’ve veered off the plan. Stay in touch with security advisors and seek out other sources whose job it is to monitor military operations. These people tend to know which roads are safe and free from explosives or flash floods, plus they follow local disputes and know when they’re flaring. Bonus: they also usually know who to call if you’re in a pinch – if you, say, get arrested in the middle of the night and need to reach the governor before you get booked as a prisoner.

GroundTruth reporting fellow Laura Heaton is a writer and journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. Her work in East Africa over the past 10 years focuses primarily on conflict and human rights, humanitarian assistance and women’s experiences in war. Laura’s reporting has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, National Geographic, The Daily Telegraph and many others.

This article originally appeared on Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists. You can subscribe to Navigator here