This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Since the pandemic, never have the words “personal protective equipment” appeared together so ubiquitously.
And it got me to thinking: what about the average freelancer’s personal protection?
We here in Canada tend to think of violence against media as associated with demonstrations elsewhere, but recent developments have proven otherwise.
In Vancouver, a working photographer was punched in the face last month by one of a handful of hostile protesters staging a “political rally” in support of extremist views. It was a timely reminder that personal safety must never be taken for granted and all of us in media today must remain vigilant in safeguarding our well-being and security of all kinds.
So, to begin a new year on a “safety-first” footing, let’s review some basic safety protocols for the average freelancer. These are just general guidelines. Not every suggestion will be appropriate. Your specific circumstances will require making a thorough risk assessment.
With so much of our lives online today it is likely that even after the pandemic has receded much of our work will continue to be handled the same way.
You will want to stay readily contactable (so a subject with a story might seek you out) but at the same time you should insure that your personal information online is restricted, especially information identifying your physical (home) location.
You should investigate all online social media and websites on which you appear and with which you interact and insure your personal information is “locked down” and kept to an absolute minimum.
If you have a personal or business website, your personal location information is totally exposed and at risk via WHO IS. This is an online registration listing of who is responsible for each website and what is their location and contact information.
You can circumnavigate this by requesting your domain name registrar make such information “private” or hidden from general public inquiries. This means they will replace your home address, home phone number, etc with their own. Most registrar companies offer this feature at no or low cost. If yours cannot you should consider transferring your domain name registration to one that can and will.
Another way to add an additional layer of privacy to any online registration is to use a business address. The easiest way to acquire one is to get a post office box (or equivalent at a commercial box rental store). It’s also good to use on business cards and stationery and any online publicity. I’ve written about the many advantages of getting one, elsewhere on this site.
The use of multiple free email accounts is another easy way to preserve your online personal privacy. You should avoid mixing your personal and business accounts and only give out to the general public an account address that is not used to identify yourself to any online institutions in your personal life. This way you can always get a new one if it gets hacked or flooded with vile spam without having to re-establish vital links and connections. Always use “two-step” verification if you can. Frequently change passwords.
In the old days you could simply request an unlisted number and it would not appear in phonebooks. (Today – what’s a phone book?)
The late great Canadian author and journalist Pierre Berton nevertheless used to proudly display his home/business number in the phonebook. When asked if it didn’t encourage crank calls, he agreed it could, but that if it brought him one new story he could use for every hundred or so crank calls then it was worthwhile. Those were much more innocent days when personal safety was rarely in doubt.
Today it is easy to get an additional phone number for business usage. So you can keep your personal line separate from your business line and never give out your personal number to the public (which, like your email account, should be the one you give out to trusted individuals and institutions like banks, etc.)
Your business line can be completely untraceable if you wish if you use a “burner” – an anonymous pay-as-you-go phone card. That is the number you can give out or publicize. Should it prove to become problematic (uninvited spam texts, obscene phone calls, etc.) you can just ditch the SIM card and get another.
More importantly, your actual physical location will be totally untraceable to anyone as no online registration of it appears anywhere. You should leave an appropriate outgoing message on it to further screen any uninvited incoming calls, asking them to leave their contact number. Those unwilling to do so will rarely be of any significant use to you.
Family members, especially younger ones, should be fully briefed never to reveal personal details to strangers calling on any line, nor to automatically trust call display (which can be “spoofed”).
In-person events coverage
During Covid: Always wear a mask and keep social distance.
If you are covering a public event you must always be aware of your surroundings and possible escape routes. Try never to get caught in the middle of a crowd or anywhere with only one way in/out. Always scout out the location ahead of time and check out where the best place would be for you to oversee events when they unfold.
I’m talking about normal every day local events that might escalate unexpectedly into very minor scuffles. I’m in no way qualified to discuss covering stories in actual war zones or known trouble “hotspots.” For that kind of work I would refer you, for starters, to The Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. There you will find various links to invaluable articles and relevant forums about safety for all kinds of journalists working in all kinds of extreme conditions.
Nobody should ever consider undertaking any such known hazardous work without adequate training and preparation. If this is at all relevant to your kind of freelancing, there are bursary competitions available to help freelancers pay for hostile environmental training. Story Board ran a recent article on it, which you can find right here.
Interviewing on location
During Covid: Always wear a mask and keep social distance.
If meeting a subject unknown to you, you should always meet in a well-lit public place. It’s good to have a few favourite such locations scoped out well ahead of time from which to choose. It could be a shopping mall or coffee shop or a public library atrium or a public park bench (when weather permits.)
If the subject suggests such a location, always get there early and scout it out. Look for any possible problems with public access or exits. Under no circumstances accept an offer to do it in their own home (not until you know them much better) nor ever any request to do it in your own home (duh!)
If you are meeting a subject for the first time at a new location you must also let somebody else know. A family member, a freelance colleague, somebody who would know what to do if they didn’t hear from you again later. It’s just common sense.
Protecting your mental equilibrium
The strain and fatigue accompanying much contemporary freelancing can have a negative emotional impact. The aforementioned Canadian Journalism Forum website has links to relevant articles about protecting that most precious of assets, our mental health.
And we have also posted here on Story Board recently about protecting mental well-being while reporting on stressful current day issues. It’s relevant information you should read and be aware of, too.
Let’s face it. We live in rapidly changing times in which – depending upon the nature of our work – some of the people and issues we may want to cover or interview could potentially become threatening to our personal safety.
For freelancers choosing to cover known trouble “hotspots” or even war zones, the threat to personal safety rises exponentially.
It is only prudent to anticipate problems, to investigate solutions, and to make whatever necessary arrangements and purchases to ensure our personal protection.
This post is only the beginning of your research. Much more is necessary in order to make a complete and accurate risk assessment of your unique situation.
Paranoia? Just a couple years ago I would have certainly thought so. But today, looking forward, I’m no longer so sure.
I think it behooves all of us to imagine the worst case scenario in which we might conceivably find ourselves, and then to enact all necessary counter-measures in order to continue living the best, safest and most productive freelancing life possible.
Editor’s note: VICE Media is offering three 90-minute long safety workshops to freelance journalists next month in partnership with the ACOS Alliance and the Overseas Press Club (OPC). They are free to attend but enrolment is limited. To find out more click here.
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