Safety Conflict and Power

Risk Assessment Is a Mindset, Not a Checklist

Conducting investigations is risky. Unfortunately, individual investigators rarely have the resources and guidance to comprehensively assess and mitigate their risks, especially if they work independently, as freelancers or in small groups that don’t benefit from the constant support and resources of a newsroom or organisation. This article provides a brief introduction to the concept of risk and presents a practical method to help individuals or small teams manage the risks of their investigation.

This article provides snapshots from Léopold Salzenstein's* session “An Investigator’s Introduction to Risk Management” at the Investigation is Collaboration conference organised by Exposing the Invisible Project on 2-6 August 2021. Léopold Salzenstein

by Di Luong

Investigators face a great deal of risks that affect not only themselves but also their sources, collaborators, close ones as well as the information they work with. Unfortunately, individual investigators rarely have the resources and guidance to comprehensively assess and mitigate their risks. Freelance investigator Léopold Salzenstein, a journalist focusing on climate change and societal safety, suggests a practical method to help individuals or small teams assess and manage risk in their investigations.

Salzenstein recommends using our investigative mindset to better understand risks associated with an investigation since risk assessment is more of a mindset than a checklist.

One definition of risk is the answer to three questions:

  • What can happen?
  • How likely is it?
  • What will the consequences be?

What can happen?

It is helpful to first define what the objective of your investigation is, and what a success scenario — when everything goes as planned — would look like. Once this baseline is set, you can start imagining all scenarios that deviate from it. This helps you to consider the potential risks that may arise during each stage of the investigation. It’s important to find a balance between the worst (credible) scenario and the most likely scenario. It is useful to consider the worst to help you prepare.

Example:

Image source: presentation by Leopold Salzenstein.


How likely is it? What will the consequences be?

Rank the likelihood of a scenario happening or the impact of a particular consequence. You can use a spectrum from “very unlikely” to “very likely” or a scale from 1 to 5 for example, where 1 can be “very unlikely” and 5 “very likely”.

Example:

Image source: presentation by Leopold Salzenstein.

After you have considered the likelihood and consequences of possible threats, you can plot out those threats on a risk matrix. A risk matrix is a representation of different risk levels, and it can help to visualize the lowest to highest risks you may encounter during an investigation. This matrix gives you insights into the scenarios with the highest risk and enables you to prioritise where and when to allocate time, skills, money and other resources.

Image source: presentation by Leopold Salzenstein.


Risk perception

Risk assessment is more than considering the likelihood and consequences of scenarios. Risk perception is subjective, influenced by people’s values, culture, knowledge, experience, fears, and biases. While you may be aware of certain threats there are also threats you might neglect to recognise or fail to take into account because of how you perceive the world. The human brain tricks us into thinking that something is more or less risky than it actually is.

An effective risk mitigation strategy encompasses steps you can undertake in order to reduce, eliminate, or modify certain scenarios you may encounter during an investigation. You may even consider not pursuing an investigation based on your risk assessment.

Example:

Image source: presentation by Leopold Salzenstein.


Risk and collaboration

An investigation often includes other individuals such as sources, collaborators, subjects of the investigation, bystanders, etc. Remember that you are not dealing with risks in a vacuum and by yourself. Even if there are no leaks, simply including other people in the process require you to consider how your own risk level increases the risk of someone else, and vice-versa. This means that risk is inherited- namely, if you and your collaborators carry little to no risk (e.g., living and working in a safe area), but you are interviewing a person experiencing high risk (e.g., living in a dangerous area or working on controversial issues), you inherit that risk. Your risk level will be higher for a period of time before and after the interview. (Read more about this in the Safety First article of the Exposing the Invisible Kit.

A group of collaborating investigators should carry out a risk assessment together, not individually. Including others in your risk assessment helps to widen your (and the others’) risk perception, and helps you develop a stronger risk mitigation plan. Doing this exercise with other individuals is a good way to identify blind spots and find new ideas to mitigate risks. During collaborations perceptions of risk include more points of view and open communication with your team is essential to risk management. 

Planning and questioning what you have planned as well as questioning what you haven’t thought of is essential to addressing risks that may come your way. Questioning your plan is part of an iterative mindset, this mindset will help when encountering risks you haven’t prepared for.


Resources

  • Holistic Security is a strategy manual to help human rights defenders maintain their well-being in action. The holistic approach integrates self-care, well-being, digital security, and information security into traditional security management practices.
  • Security in a box covers basic digital safety methods, principles and tools. It offers step-by-step instructions to help you install, configure and use essential digital-security software and services. Security in a Box is jointly developed by Front Line Defenders and Tactical Tech, along with a global network of activists, trainers and digital security experts.
  • Electronic Frontier Front (EFF) defends civil liberties in the digital world since 1990 with a focus on online privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development. Check out Surveillance Self-Defense, EFF’s basics on how surveillance works, tips, tools and tutorials for safer online communications.
  • Front Line Defenders aims to protect human rights defenders and other civil society groups at risk (HRDs). Check its Guide to Secure Group Chat and Conferencing Tools, among other resources.
  • Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide and defends the right of journalists to report safely.Check CPJ’s safety resources.
  • Rory Peck Trust is dedicated to the support, safety and welfare of freelance news gatherers around the world. See their resources.


*Léopold Salzenstein is a freelance investigative journalist focusing on climate change and societal safety. His work has been published in various online media, such as Mongabay, Carbon Tracker and The Local. He is currently working with The New Humanitarian. Leopold graduated from the University of Lund in 2021 with a Master’s degree in Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Adaptation. He is also a fellow with the Solutions Journalism Network, where he is learning to use data in solution reporting.



This article is part of a series of resources and publications produced by Exposing the Invisible during a one-year project (September 2020 - August 2021) supported by the European Commission (DG CONNECT)

European Commission

This text reflects the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.


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