Report on journalists’ deaths proposes changes to NPR’s editorial procedures

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An independent audit into the deaths of two journalists reporting for NPR from Afghanistan last year found no faults in the public broadcaster’s existing security protocols, but made recommendations for internal improvements in editorial procedures and training.

Investigators hired by NPR — former Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander and First Amendment lawyer David J. Bodney — also said the precise cause of the deaths of photographer David Gilkey and translator Zabihullah Tamanna may never be known. The two were riding in an armored Humvee hit by heavy weapons fire.

NPR provided the 16-page document to Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen on a confidential basis late last week and allowed her to report on its conclusions without restrictions for her online column.

NPR News SVP Michael Oreskes told NPR staffers in a memo Tuesday that he is appointing an internal working group “to assure we are taking every step we can to safeguard our journalists in the field, domestically and internationally, and that we are looking after them upon their return,” Jensen reported. Oreskes said in the memo that he planned to share the lessons learned with other national news organizations.

NPR is not releasing the full report to the public, Jensen wrote, adding that “much of it deals with information about security protocols designed to protect NPR staff members who travel on risky assignments, and those details should rightly remain confidential.”

Jensen said the document concludes with 12 “observations and recommendations.” Many of those, the report said, were “suggested or endorsed by the roughly three dozen people, mostly experienced NPR journalists” who were sources for the report.

Those recommendations include tightening the editing structure so one editor is clearly in charge; requiring editors to attend pre-departure security briefings and take the same hostile environment training that reporters and producers take; expanding the number of reporters and producers who receive this training; and limiting the use of social media in hostile environments.

Another proposal is to shift oversight for high-risk overseas assignments to the International Desk. Oreskes agreed and told Jensen that NPR should “put our most expert news leaders in charge of these trips at all times.”

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