“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.
Of course, this sampling of answers and non-responses is just a drop in the media-business bucket; freelancers work from dangerous areas all over the world for print, web, radio, and television. News organizations in every medium save money by buying from freelancers. It’s no mystery why; insurance is prohibitively expensive. Michael Kamber, who’s freelanced from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, and many other countries, says when he was working in Iraq in 2007 for The New York Times, his editor told him that they “were paying more for my insurance than they were paying for me to work there.” But policies like The New York Times’s are rare. “A lot of newspapers and magazines, they use you when they need you and then they walk away,” says Kamber. “When they don’t need you anymore, there’s no follow up. I’ve seen it; people get hurt, and they’re not taken care of.”
Kamber wrote a post for the The New York Times’s Lens blog this past October describing how “the Libyan war appeared to draw a large number of unprepared and inexperienced photographers to the war zone,” most of whom were young (early to mid-twenties) and had little to no insurance or training. But showing up is the way everyone starts. “It’s the way in, it’s always been the way in. It’s the way I got in,” says Kamber. “But the journalist is the little guy. We can’t put this on a 22-year-old journalist starting out with a few hundred dollars in the bank.”
This problem is not insurmountable; improvements can be made. “There are ways to do this, it’s a partnership. I’m not putting it all on the companies,” says Kamber. He brings up the possibility of news outlets combining resources to create a solution. “It would be great if these organizations came together and had a pooled policy to put freelancers under,” says Kamber. It’s an idea that CPJ’s Frank Smyth also proposed as a possible way to start dealing with this problem.
Journalism institutions, which are supposed to be bastions for transparency, can also start by being completely clear about what they can and cannot do for their freelancers on the front lines. Encouraging reporters to get training would also be a big step. Several organizations offer hostile region instruction, including Sebastian Junger’s new initiative, Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, which offers courses in battlefield safety and first aid. “I think media companies that have big budgets have the resources to help work on a solution,” says Kamber. “They can’t just step back and say hey, they’re freelancers. Tough luck. They sold us the photo for $200, and now we owe them nothing.”