By Valerie Yurk

Six years ago, Reporters Without Borders gave the U.S. a press freedom ranking of 32nd out of 180 countries. In 2019, the ranking dropped to 48th.

As it becomes easier to find personal information online and hostility towards journalists increases, it’s more challenging to ensure safety for journalists covering sensitive or controversial topics.

One year after an active shooter opened fire and killed five employees at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Maryland, six experts told journalists how to keep their newsrooms safe from threats – both in-person and digital ones. They all agreed that the best ways to stay safe are to prepare, to practice and to avoid dangerous situations.

Margaux Ewen, executive director of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, advised journalists to weigh the impact they expect their story to make in society against the risks necessary to get the story.

“Ask yourself if your life is worth it,” she said. “Don’t take for granted that we’re in the country with the First Amendment, because 48th place isn’t great.”

Freelance journalists are most at risk because they typically lack a “buddy system,” according to Danny Spriggs, The Associated Press’ vice president of global security. Without a team, solo journalists lack 360-degree coverage during risky situations. In this case, planning out logistics and communication, brushing up on safety training and getting protective gear is crucial, Spriggs said.

Women and minority reporters face increased threats, too. According to an International Women’s Media Foundation survey, one-third of women reporters said they had considered leaving the industry because of digital threats and attacks. Nadine Hoffman, deputy director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, explained that without proper training or planning, threats to safety play a huge role in keeping women and minorities out of the media industry.

When covering a volatile protest or rally, sometimes threats to journalists aren’t from civilians or readers, but rather from law enforcement. Cmdr. Guillermo Rivera, head of special operations for the Washington Metropolitan Police Department said it’s challenging for officers to differentiate between journalists and protestors when a demonstration becomes chaotic.

In situations like that, Rivera told journalists to pay close attention to cues from the crowd and separate themselves as much as possible from violent outbreaks. His No. 1 piece of advice to avoid run-ins with law enforcement: Be aware of the laws of the jurisdiction you are in.

“Journalists don’t have the same training that officers do, so you guys are more at risk than we are,” he said.

Online threats to journalists are just as dangerous, explained Viktorya Vilk, PEN America manager of special projects, and Traci Schweikert, Politico vice president of human resources. In a PEN America survey, 67 percent of journalists reported severe reactions to harassment, like deleting social media, refraining from publishing work or fearing for their safety.

Vilk advised clearing the internet of your personal information. Some simple steps – like picking difficult security questions and passwords, getting a virtual phone number and keeping personal information out of public bios and social media accounts – can help keep information secure.

“You can have a little personality in your social media account without telling people about your children or where you live,” Vilk said.

Schweikert suggested always documenting and reporting any digital threat to human resources or in some cases, law enforcement.

“People come to me and say, ‘This is probably nothing, but …’ and I would rather investigate a ‘nothing, but’ because nothing is worse than coming back to a situation with, ‘If I had only reported it,’” Schweikert said.