Today, western freelance reporters of all stripes are spread across not just Pakistan but Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin America, reporting on the most violent conflicts in the world. War zones have become the training ground for some of the greenest reporters, a way to break into a U.S. news business that has dramatically reduced its footprint in the world, shuttering bureaus and calling correspondents home. For newsrooms with shrunken budgets, freelancers in far-flung hotspots are a godsend. They tend to be young and hungry and, more to the point, cost a fraction of what staff reporters do. They don’t have to be insured; they don’t require business cards or press passes or Kevlar vests or hostile-environment training.

This situation is not new. The retreat from foreign coverage has been under way for at least twenty years, and intrepid freelancers have long set off without institutional backing to try to make their own professional breaks. But what is different now is that the financial health of most news outlets has become so dire that their use of—and in some cases reliance on—such lone-wolf reporters has become the norm rather than the exception. Advances in digital technology, meanwhile, have enabled a new breed of citizen journalist to wander in search of a scoop—or stumble upon one—publishing on their own Web sites and on their own terms. The result is that while not long ago we would have expected a star reporter like Christiane Amanpour to provide the defining reportage from a violent post-election Iran, today it is raw camera-phone video footage of a young woman bleeding to death in the streets of Tehran that defines a moment in history. The people who uploaded this video of Neda Agha-Soltan were awarded a Polk award, one of journalism’s highest honors.

Some freelancers have capitalized on the new reality to produce important coverage and establish themselves as serious journalists. Chris Albritton, for instance, translated his fearless and incisive freelance war reporting into a bureau chief position with Reuters. Michael Yon, another freelance war reporter who became popular for his coverage of fighting in Iraq, published a book and caught the attention of Bruce Willis, who expressed interest in making a movie based on Yon’s experiences.

But given the range of people who roam the world’s volatile regions—from academics doing research to tourists with blogs and digital cameras—it isn’t surprising that we periodically hear the alarming news of freelance journalists—or someone with a camera who may or may not consider himself a journalist—getting into trouble. The imprisonment of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi by the Iranian government was only the most publicized of recent cases. Shane Bauer, one of the American “hikers” arrested months later in Iran on charges of spying, has also been described as “a published journalist who reported from Darfur, Yemen and Iraq,” and whose “insightful commentaries have covered issues not tackled by the mainstream media.” These arrests in Iran came on the heels of the imprisonment of two Asian-American journalists in North Korea, and in the following months many freelancers also ended up in jails while covering the post-election upheaval in Iran and the war in Sri Lanka. And then there are those under-reported stories, like Nicole Tung, the twenty-three-year-old college graduate (and journalism major) who was picked up by Pakistani intelligence agents last December as she wandered in the tribal areas armed with a camera, working as a freelance photographer.

The upshot is that there is real confusion over who is a journalist in a war zone, and that confusion can cause problems for professional journalists as they try to do the already difficult work of covering conflict. But me having a trip into the tribal areas scuttled, and having to work overtime to mend my inherently fraught relationships with the Pakistani military, are minor irritations compared to the very real possibility that this confusion can be exploited for political gain. And the problem is not simply a matter of foreign governments looking to control the western media, or gain a propaganda edge. The more serious signs of trouble are coming from home.

In January, Major General Michael T. Flynn, the top U.S. intelligence official in Afghanistan, published a report calling for an overhaul of intelligence-gathering operations. Drawing parallels to how sports reporters gauge the chances of teams winning in the National Football League, Flynn expressed the need for intelligence assets who would “retrieve information from the ground level and make it available to a broader audience, similar to the way journalists work.”

In the footnotes, he was even more pointed: “Analysts need not come solely from the intelligence community. . . . Seasoned print journalists who have been laid off in the current industry retrenchment, and who want to serve their country in Afghanistan, might be a source of talent. . . . ”

Shahan Mufti teaches journalism at the University of Richmond. He is the author of The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War.