"The risk of physical harm when you're working as a journalist is a lot like the risk of libel in some ways," said journalist and author Susan McKay at the International Journalism Festival in Italy today (14 April).

"Sometimes it's obvious where it might come from, but it sometimes comes from very unexpected sources – you can be taken by surprise by something which turns out to be risky in a defamatory sense, in the same way that you can be wrong about the kind of person that is safe," she added.

Journalists can often be tempted to put themselves in risky situations for a great scoop, but this can lead to serious ramifications – even ones that aren't initially anticipated.

"I have to say that the most dangerous person in my case is myself – I've never had a sense of self-protection, and I don't think I am unusual in that. I'm impatient with safety advice."

But having an attitude of wanting to challenge people without consdering personal safety is dangerous as a journalist, whether you are interviewing an angry, bereaved member of the public or somene who belongs to an organised crime group.

So how should reporters protect themselves when interviewing people in a potentially volatile situation?

Drew Sullivan, co-founder and editor of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), said that although the editor is responsible for the health and safety of all their journalists, there are many things that reporters should be doing to protect themselves.

Realise that what you're doing is dangerous

"We are like firefighters – they have a really difficult and unsafe job. But firefighters have protective gear, equipment and regular training over and over in burning buildings, whereas journalists don't regulary do that – many get their training from films on organised crime, but the reality is much different," Sullivan said.

He emphasised the importance of carrying out a risk assessment on the person you are interviewing, asking these 'four questions of life' before you go in: do they kill, and if so...; when do they kill; how do they kill; and why do they kill?

"These [questions] are really critical, you have to know their modus operandi. In any particular group, you need to find out what the landmines are. It can be another group they are fighting with, or it can be that someone is sensitive to talking about their family – the question 'how is your daughter?' suddenly becomes a threat to them."

Get training well in advance

"This is not something you just want to go out and try," Sullivan said.

"If you're serious about doing this, you need to find some place to get very good, serious training working in unsafe conditions – it has to be done with careful planning beforehand."

Craft your questions well

"Stay away from embarrassing details and personal details," he added.

"I had a reporter in Tunisia do a story about a Saudi Imam who was running a criminal organisation. She told me he was married to a berber woman and she was going to put it in the story. I said drop it, she didn't listen to me, and then his wife in Saudi Arabia didn't know he was married in Tunisia – he took it as a threat and she's still undercover three years later.

"Don't think from a journalist standpoint, you need to think from their standpoint.

"You're usually not in danger during the interview but the goal is to leave without these people thinking about killing you, which is hard if you haven't done your research."

He noted that their first thought will be that a reporter has been paid to write a negative story on them.

"They will look for weak points, as the last thing they want to do is actually give you information.

"You need to explain who you are and what you're doing – they may not have been interviewed by a journalist before, and so you need to cast the image of being extremely professional and explain how the process works.

"Make it perfectly clear that you do not control things – do not promise anything that you cannot deliver."

Hold your own

"You can't be afraid, you have to be on your game – don't be bullied.

"There is a certain amount of respect afforded to you by some organised crime groups if you show you cannot be frazzled and that you are a strong journalist – they are testing you to find out what type of person you are."

Sullivan noted that he would never let his interviewee threaten him, and that he would stop the interview if it got too heated, sending a clear message that he will not be bullied.

"Occasionally, things do go south quite quickly. Whatever you need to say to save yourself and get out of that room alive, say it."

Don't antagonise them

"As a general rule, no surprises – surprises are a bad thing and the interviewee should always know what is going to be in the story," he explained, noting that playing the nice guy and then writing a piece that "hints at something deeper" is dangerous practice.

"You can still get them to reveal things in the interview if you just do it very carefully, but you are essentially interviewing somebody to stay alive.

"Don't give them reasons to kill you after you have published a story."

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