Yet, Jehl said difficulty obtaining visas and harassing police, along with the vivid specters of death and abduction, are also impediments to reporting from Syria. Journalists’ efforts to cover the uprising against Bashar al-Assad have persisted nonetheless. Hilsum explained why editors deem these obstacles worth overcoming in Syria and not Libya: “An editor will send a journalist to a very dangerous place like Syria (or Egypt right now) if it’s going to be the lead story, but it’s hard to justify sending someone somewhere so dangerous if—in newspaper terms—it’s going to be in the middle of page 5.”
On top of this, news organizations are operating with increasingly limited travel budgets and the number of reporters on American newspapers’ foreign staffs has declined by about a third since 2003. Papers often rely on reporting by freelance journalists to plug the holes. But unless they have been sent on assignment, freelance journalists intrepid enough to travel to a perilous place must be willing to jeopardize their safety without guaranteed support or insurance provided by a news organization should something go awry. David Axe, the international collections editor at Medium and a former freelance journalist, and freelance photographer Thomas Hammond, who are traveling to Syria to cover the impact of the conflict on Syrian civilians, are the rare duo taking on such risk.
“We’re probably on our own with no additional support beyond what the US government normally provides,” Axe says. “That’s just a brutal reality and something that independent journalists must contend with.”
Michael Goldfarb, a veteran freelance reporter who contributes to BBC radio, agrees that market incentives encourage freelancers to cover elements of broader stories with readymade audiences. This powerfully deters them from perilous places, like Libya, that are not the sites of the top stories of the moment. “If editors aren’t interested in Libya, there’s no point in trying to sell them the idea in advance,” he argues. “If you find a Libyan story, go report it, write it, and then present it to them on a silver platter wrapped in a bow—then maybe they will be interested. But who can afford to do that? And, given the dangers in Libya, who would take the risk?”