A Disturbing Trend in Journalism: Freelancers on the Front Lines

The horrific deaths of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of ISIS’s fanatical militants have been universally condemned in the civilized world for their savagery. But beyond the confirmation that ISIS is a band of bloodthirsty thugs, these tragic deaths point to a disturbing trend in the way the world gets its news.

Both Foley and Sotloff were freelancers, journalists who ventured into the most dangerous conflict zone of our time on their own, surviving on their wits and their temporary freelance contracts to report on the Syrian civil war. Syria has turned into a killing field for journalists since the conflict began in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 68 journalists have been killed since the start of the Civil War. Of the seven killed so far this year, four have been freelancers.

 

Freelancers are increasingly bearing the brunt of the violence.

Plenty of staff reporters, photographers and cameramen have been killed as well, but freelancers are increasingly bearing the brunt of the violence. That’s because most mainstream news organizations have pulled their employees out of Syria, having decided that it was just too dangerous to venture into a place where even the most rudimentary rules of war don’t apply and journalists are frequently considered bargaining chips to be traded for prisoners or fat sums of cash.

With news organizations still looking for somebody to get the story, they have turned increasingly to freelancers. With traditional media in deep economic decline, jobs are few for young journalists so the lure of an instant career, and perhaps fame, as a war correspondent is more tempting than ever. Recruits are plentiful and they are generally cheap. No need for costly insurance, conflict training, flak jackets, let alone payment of ransom demands. Freelancers are independent contractors who are supposed to take care of themselves.

As a foreign correspondent for The Globe and Mail, I went on dangerous assignments in Afghanistan, Iraq and during the Kosovo War. I never fully embraced the life of a war correspondent – it was exciting alright, but I figured that no story was worth my life. Although the situation was not as dangerous as Syria is today, I did see upfront the perils of reporting from conflict zones. Four foreign journalists were killed during the six weeks I spent in northern Afghanistan in 2001. Like other reporters, I ran the risk of going down the wrong road, being betrayed by a fixer, or being hit by a stray bullet. Yet I did have a large media organization behind me, with resources to extract me,or at least to pressure the Canadian government to step in, if necessary;and I was in regular contact with an editor back in Canada, who could help advise me on important decisions and order me out of the war zone if it became too dangerous.

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A freelancer has no such backing. I can still remember a couple of young Japanese journalists turning up in northern Afghanistan with no cash, no satellite phone, and no idea what they were doing. It was frightening. Even for more experienced freelancers, the risks are many. In a recent spine-chilling article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Francesca Borri, an Italian freelancer who has reported extensively from Syria, said that no matter where she was writing from, she was paid the same – 70 for an article – and if she did not provide enough blood or gore, editors were not interested in buying.

Borri continues: “Not only can you not afford insurance – it’s almost $1,000 a month – but you cannot afford a fixer or a translator. You find yourself alone in the unknown. The editors are well aware that $70 a piece pushes you to save on everything. They know, too, that if you happen to be seriously wounded, there is a temptation to hope not to survive (sic), because you cannot afford to be wounded. But they buy your article anyway, even if they would never buy the Nike soccer ball handmade by a Pakistani child.”

The situation in Syria has become so dire that several leading UK newspapers, including The Guardian, have decided they will no longer buy articles from freelance journalists in the country, so as not to encourage them to take undue risks.


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The Rory Peck Trust, a London-based charity dedicated to serving the needs of freelance news gatherers, particularly in war zones, last year pleaded with freelance journalists to stay home. “We can’t stop freelancers going to Syria, even if we want to. But we can urge them to think carefully about the consequences for themselves, their families and their colleagues if they do,” the Trust said, imploring potential freelancers to ask themselves: “Do you really have to go?” The Trust also quoted Javier Manzano, a freelance photojournalist who reported extensively from Syria in the early days of the conflict: “It would be unwise (at best) and irresponsible (at worst) to go inside Syria as an independent journalist at this time.”

It’s a sad commentary on the state of news gathering in 2014 that the world is likely to hear less about what is happening in Syria from the international press, even though the need to be informed is as great as ever. But sometimes, the price for freely-gathered information is just too high.

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