But reporters often don’t mention insurance out of fear that it could mean losing the job. After a brief stint reporting for an aviation news service from Iraq, Kimberly Johnson knew she wanted to go back and continue reporting. She took a course on surviving hostile regions, and after lining up some “tentative strings” with newspapers and news services, was able to embed with the Marines in Anbar Province. The embed was a strategic move on her part: “I knew that if something happened, the military will take care of you to a certain extent, or at least get you to a hospital in Germany, and then I would figure out how to reimburse the military from there,” says Johnson.
She researched insurance policies, but says she “would have been making just enough to maybe pay the premium.” “It was an endeavor sparked by passion, versus common sense, as my mama would say,” says Johnson. After freelancing a few pieces for USA Today, Johnson was offered the opportunity to blog for the paper’s site; she accepted, and wrote a column called “Dispatches from Iraq.” Johnson also wrote stories that landed on the front page, above the fold, in USA Today’s print edition.
But insurance wasn’t part of the deal with USA Today, says Johnson, and she was reluctant to ask: “I do believe it would have been a deal breaker if I pressed the issue.” She recalls explaining the entire situation to her mother and recommending a course of action should something go wrong. “I told her, ‘If you don’t hear from me in X amount of days, contact Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists.’ And I said, ‘Go to local media with this picture of me smiling and every other word out of your mouth is to be USA Today,’” says Johnson. “That was my insurance plan.”
Johnson takes full responsibility for going along with this contract. “It was complete free will,” says Johnson. “I agreed to their terms to do this with them, and my intent in talking about this is not to throw them under the bus. They have their priorities, and so did I. My priority was to get over there and tell a story. I felt compelled to do that.”
William Dermody, the world/military affairs editor for USA Today said in an emailed response that the details of Johnson’s arrangement with USA Today could not be confirmed in time for this piece: “[T]o be absolutely clear, I am not disputing Kimberly’s account. I just can’t verify it one way or the other because [those] who may have had personal knowledge of her deal have since left the paper,” writes Dermody.
“I do know that since I have been in this position roughly two years that we have paid the cost of an insurance policy for contract employees like Kimberly who we have arranged to send to conflict zones,” writes Dermody. “However, we rely much more frequently on freelance journalists who do not work exclusively for us and are located in the region where the story is happening We do not manage nor direct these reporters. They are independent operators
“We pay a flat fee for the story and photos from freelancers. It’s our understanding that the freelancers provide for their own insurance. We greatly value the contributions of our freelance reporters We will always stand by them if they encounter trouble.”
Other large news organizations responded similarly. John Daniszewski, AP’s senior managing editor for international news, wrote:
“In conflict zones we mostly take content from trusted individuals with whom we have some kind of regular, ongoing relationship. If any person is injured while on assignment for us, of course we provide whatever care is deemed medically appropriate. We have provided such care in the rare cases when there has been serious injury. We would not assume liability for other freelancers not on assignment for AP or working without AP’s foreknowledge in a conflict area.”
Eileen Murphy, vice president of corporate communications for The New York Times, wrote in an email:
“[W]e do provide both accidental death and disability coverage for our freelancers, as well as medical coverage, when they are abroad in harm’s way. We also provide emergency evacuations, if needed.”
The BBC responded with a reference to this webpage, which explains that freelancers are “expected to have their own personal accident insurance,” but that the BBC will cover “emergency overseas medical expenses” incurred while out of their home country on “BBC assignments of up to three months duration.” Requests for comment to The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times went unanswered.