“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: