Freelancers on the Front Lines

Safety for foreign correspondents is an issue the media needs to address

It was almost one year ago that photojournalist and Restrepo director Sebastian Junger lost his good friend and colleague, Tim Hetherington, to a shrapnel wound suffered while covering the conflict in Libya. Photojournalist Chris Hondros was also killed, and two other photographers were injured in the incident.

The tragedy inspired Junger’s latest project, RISC—Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues—an initiative to train and equip freelance journalists with emergency medical training. RISC holds its inaugural three-day workshop in New York Wednesday. The 24 freelance journalists participating are asked to pay only the cost of travel and food.

Junger’s initiative is inspiring and much-needed; but the fact that he, a freelancer, had to found it, should give the media industry some pause about the gaps it has left its growing corps of foreign-based freelance journalists to fill.

This rise in both freelancers and the need to keep them safe was no more apparent than at “Covering the Globe,” a four-speaker panel co-sponsored by CJR with Thomson Reuters last week. Freelance, or “gig” correspondents, panelists said, need to be versatile, and (ideally) widely published. They, as Columbia Journalism professor Howard French, one of the panelists, put it, “piece together a lifestyle based on a basket full of strings, with a variety of people that may cross several platforms.” If they have insurance or hostile environment training, it likely came at great cost. If there is someone on the street that is creeping them out at 2 a.m., they can call a friend.

This is starkly different than the situation of a correspondent who works for a major, well-funded media outlet like Reuters. They contribute reporting, analysis, images, or video to a news product that is produced by a multimedia team. They have benefits, hostile environment and security training, and the moral and logistical support of managers back at headquarters in New York, whom they can call if they feel unsafe. This scenario is growing rarer in an increasingly gig-based economy.

This transformation has been long in the works, the result of media fragmentation and the reality that a gig journalist is all that most outlets—i.e. those not financed by a financial data product—can afford.

“It’s not, ‘Will I send one person or will I send three people? It’s ‘Will I send one person or will we not send anyone?’” said NBC correspondent Mara Schiavocampo, describing the decisions outlets—both with correspondents and without—are weighing about foreign stories. It is perhaps telling that even Schiavocampo—who got her start covering international stories as a multi-platform gig journalist “when technology was cheap and small enough to fit in an overhead bin”— “doesn’t want to lose her edge on self-sufficiency.”

Schiavocampo should be any media company’s dream: she writes, she shoots, she edits, she tweets—a one-woman band. But of course, this is less a dream than a new industry standard.

French, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Washington Post, said this is the landscape he tries to prepare the next generation of journalists to enter. “The conversations I’m having with students is about how to become a gig journalist …That’s what you need to do to survive now.”

This one-man band model certainly produces efficient journalism—Schiavocampo said she has learned to streamline her work process so that she only asks questions once and leaves note taking to her video camera. But does it produce good journalism?

Schiavocampo admitted that her work ends up being good-enough journalism: reporting that produces, say, a strong video piece that is supported by an informative, if bland, text piece. The video is the main product, while the text story is value-added.

This is a shrewd mindset for journalists who need to compete for jobs and attention in the market, but media leaders should realize this poses some problems that compromise the quality of the product. Storytelling in print is a very different art than storytelling by video. And reporting with camera will elicit very different information than reporting without one. Is “good enough” coverage better than nothing? Probably, but that’s not a standard to strive for.

What’s not great for journalism overall is far worse for the foreign-based freelancers who are being paid less to do more.

“The person out on line is constantly being asked to do more simply to stay afloat…without the benefits that existed in the past. I’m not sure how we end up reconciling that with a sustainably good quality news production that also respects people’s lives and livelihoods and safety,” French said.

More than ever, this point should be obvious. Foreign correspondents have long been exposed to danger, but the past 18 months have been a grueling showcase of all that can befall the foreign reporter—from the sexual violence in Tahrir Square, to abductions in Libya, to deaths in Syria, to war zone injuries in Afghanistan. Misfortune, of course, strikes affiliated reporters and freelancers alike, but correspondents with provisional training and an established support networks are better off in such situations. (Having had my own brush with a foreign government while reporting abroad, I can attest to the significance of even the most basic level of institutional support.)

Panelist Caroline Drees, who oversees the robust staffs that work for Reuters’ Africa, Middle East, and South Asia bureaus, emphasized the increasing importance of safety. Drees’ journalists call on her frequently—often in the wee hours—for some degree of support. (Not coincidentally, I suspect, fourth panelist Thomas Mucha, who oversees the editorial operations of GlobalPost, whose content is produced by gig journalists, said he “very rarely” gets these calls.)

“Not every war or disaster is the same,” Drees said. “Someone may thrive in one hostile environment and struggle in another. But each is different and scary in its own ways, and extremely difficult.”

While gig journalists can and do rely on other freelancers for support—Junger is a good illustration of this—this does not match the sort of backing an institution provides.

It’s worth asking how we’ve settled on a media culture in which an aggregator will more likely find steady pay and benefits than those providing images and dispatches from a war zone. If the gig economy is truly the way of foreign reporting’s future, it’s in the media’s best interest to invest some thought in its freelancers’ safety and security. This might mean playing with budgets to compensate them more justly; or scaling back the one-man band expectations (GlobalPost relies on video specialists for video, for example); or forming partnerships with many of the English-language publications and journalists abroad; or more broadly reimagining foreign reporting to find more journalist-friendly ways to do more with less. Andy Carvin, NPR’s social media guru who curates tweets from the frontlines of global conflict is a fine example of how a news organization can add to its international coverage using the new landscape of resources at relatively little cost. (Wikileaks or the vast universe of foreign content that is on the Web also offer much potential.)

Regardless of what form future foreign reporting takes, let’s hope the journalists are not left to fend for themselves.

Watch “Covering the Globe” here:

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.