THE BLOG

Another War Photographer's Death Is a Reminder of the Importance of First Aid Training for Journalists

06/18/2015 10:28 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

In the summer of 2011, just a few months after photojournalist Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya, Sebastian Junger hired me to help him start a nonprofit medical training program for independent journalists working in war zones. At Hetherington's funeral that spring, a combat medic had given Junger the heartbreaking news that his buddy Tim might have been saved. Shrapnel from a mortar attack by Muammar Qadaffi's forces had severed an artery in Hetherington's leg and the wound was very serious, the medic told Junger. But slowing the bleeding enough to keep him alive during the 15-minute ride to the hospital would have been manageable for someone trained in first aid. Junger quickly realized that if he had been there, he would not have known what to do, and nor would the majority of his colleagues regularly working in war zones. He founded RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) on the basis that no journalist should die a preventable death because his or her colleagues were not given a fair opportunity to get trained. Since then, there has been a rising awareness in the news business that journalists covering conflict need to be better prepared.

And yet this February, in a small village in eastern Ukraine, another journalist appears to have suffered the same fate as Hetherington. Photographer Serhiy Nikolayev, traveling with a group of journalists on the front lines of fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists, suffered multiple shrapnel wounds in a mortar attack. A video taken at the scene shows Nikolayev alive, but visibly losing consciousness as he lies on his side in an open field. Shocked and in tears, his colleagues are at a loss. All, including Nikolayev, are wearing helmets and flak jackets. But none has the right training to properly assess his wounds and take action to keep him alive until a team of medics arrives and it is too late.

The video is devastating to watch; I can only imagine what Nikolayev's colleagues are going through. For me, having witnessed 215 journalists learn how to respond to that exact scenario at RISC courses over the past three years, it was all the more frustrating.

According to U.S. military research, the most common preventable cause of death on the battlefield is bleeding out from a wound. Similarly, in a needs assessment I prepared in 2012 using data from the Committee to Protect Journalists , I found that the vast majority of the 254 journalists killed in crossfire since 1992 (i.e., those who were not targeted for murder) died from gunshot or shrapnel wounds, and many were with colleagues at the time of injury. We can infer that at least some of these deaths were caused by a loss of blood that may have been slowed or stopped by a trained colleague in the first few moments after injury. RISC also trains journalists to perform needle decompression to prevent death by tension pneumothorax, a condition where air seeps into the chest cavity from a wound and causes the lung to collapse. I have not seen Nikolayev's death certificate with the exact cause of death, but it is clear in the video that he did not receive immediate care to stabilize a life-threatening condition.

Just weeks after Nikolayev's death, on April 5-9 this year RISC traveled to Kyiv to train 24 Ukrainian journalists. In conversations with these journalists and with media activists from the Kyiv-based Institute of Mass Information (IMI), we were told that local journalists covering the conflict there are terribly underprepared and unsupported by their news agencies in terms of personal safety. Although it has become common to wear protective vests and helmets, often rented from IMI or purchased to share among a group, most journalists do not have hostile environment or emergency medical training. And most are not carrying personal first aid kits.

It is unacceptable that there are still journalists working in dangerous areas like eastern Ukraine who have not been trained. Most are local, with even less access to training than international freelance journalists. Journalists owe it to each other to seek out this training and be prepared when going into the field. Media companies must be held accountable not just when one of their employees goes into the field unprepared, but when a freelancer or local journalist whose work they are publishing does so. Most companies that provide first aid training are for-profit and the cost is prohibitive for freelancers and local journalists. RISC and other nonprofits like Trauma Training for Journalists and the Rory Peck Trust rely on donations to provide this training at no cost. Media companies have a moral responsibility to ensure that all journalists have a fair opportunity to get trained. They must bear the cost by contributing to nonprofits like RISC or by organizing trainings for everyone whose work they publish.

The tragic deaths of Hetherington and Nikolayev illustrate that a lack of emergency medical training among journalists is unquestionably a matter of life and death. Hetherington's companions in Misrata were heartbroken at his death; surely Nikolayev's are too. RISC trainees always tell us after a course that the most important part of being trained is gaining the confidence to step forward when someone is hurt, rather than just waiting for the professionals to arrive. Many of our trainees through the years have told us of incidents where they were unable to help someone who was wounded; almost everyone in the Kyiv course had a story like this. As one trainee wrote to us after that course, "The most valuable experience for me from the training is that I am no longer afraid that someone will die simply because I did not know what to do."