New series gives ‘fixers’ their due

Illustration: Pawel Jonca / Roads & Kingdoms

In the 2002 movie Live from Baghdad, Michael Keaton plays a seasoned CNN producer who travels to Iraq to cover the first Gulf War. Checking into his hotel, Keaton’s character overhears a woman helping translate for another guest. Without skipping a beat he introduces himself and offers her a job working for CNN.

“But I’m not a translator, I’m an Egyptian student,” the woman protests.

“Really?” Keaton says, as if he’s had this sort of conversation countless times. He whips out some cash and hands it over to her. “How’d you like to be a translator? 100 bucks a day.”

She readily agrees, and CNN goes off to produce coverage that stuns the world.

When I first saw this movie, I had little experience working abroad as a journalist. Looking back on it now, however, I find the scene hilariously absurd. Why would a network that sent an entire team to cover a war not have sorted out a translator beforehand? Why wouldn’t Keaton have tested her translation skills? Also, she said she was from Egypt. Even though Arabic is the official language in both countries, wouldn’t it be wiser to hire an Iraqi? I could go on.

But then I realized how the scene—perhaps without meaning to—got so many things right about the fraught and informal relationship between the international media and “fixers,” as pretty much anyone hired to help journalists, even if they themselves are journalists, are called.

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In recent years more journalists are asking questions about how fixers are treated, who is benefiting more from the arrangement, whether credit from the work is shared enough, and what can be done to level the playing field. It’s a necessary conversation. Fortunately, many of these questions are addressed in a timely new series from Roads & Kingdoms, a website that has described itself as “foreign correspondence through food, music, and culture.”

Launched late last year, the new series is called Unbylined and features Q&A-style interviews with “fixers” from all over the world. They have published pieces from the Philippines, Iraq, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Belarus, Mexico, and China. More are coming.

The editors and reporters at R&K, which is now based in Brooklyn but grew out of  a Tumblr in Myanmar, have developed a knack for this sort of thing. (Full disclosure: In 2015, I contributed two posts to the site from Myanmar and Bangladesh, respectively.)

They and their contributors approach well-trodden territory through a secret side door. Pakistan, for instance, appears frequently in the mainstream news, mostly for reasons related to violent developments in the South Asian country. There is almost nothing on what it’s like to live there. That leaves space for pieces such as “The KFC Chicken Sandwich that Ate Pakistan,” an essay by Saba Imtiaz about the unusual way KFC’s Zinger burger has embedded itself in the taste buds of the nation. In Karachi, Imtiaz explains, “the Zinger is a symbol of urban aspirations and dreams, a burger that sustains a city constantly in flux. It’s not just a burger. It’s Karachi’s burger.” Imtiaz describes its origin from KFC product to byword for a fried-chicken patty sold at any number of restaurants. It has melded so deeply into local food culture that it is possible to get Zinger Biryani, which Imtiaz dubbed a “work of art.”

Unbylined has a similar effect on readers by inviting them back into the kitchen of international journalism.

“In general, the goal of the series is both to recognize the vital work these people do and to help inform readers about where their news comes from. That’s why we call it Unbylined, emphasizing the fact that you can tell from the interviews how much reporting and even framing they’re doing on a story, but they largely don’t receive credit,” says R&K Executive Editor Cara Parks in an email. “This series combines two themes near and dear to our hearts at R&K: pulling back the curtain on international reporting and providing a platform for voices that are too often marginalized or ignored by the media. In that sense, this column is a real sweet spot for us.”

I asked her what has been most surprising or revealing about the answers.

“Each of them have been revealing in their own ways, but in general, it’s been a good reminder that every repressive government is repressive in its own way. In Belarus, Dzmitry Halko described the hamfisted theatrics of that Stalinist regime, while in China, Christine Wei emphasized the issue of self-censorship over official interventions,” she says. “It’s been a refreshing reminder of the nuanced approach required to create informative foreign reporting, as well as how often that’s not what actually ends up on the page.”

Reading through the interviews, I also picked up on how journalists come to a country with a very fixed notion of the story they want to do, however outlandish the idea may be.

Jorge Armando Nieto, a Mexican reporter who fixes for international news outlets, described how a visiting journalist wanted to approach a member of a cartel to get access to a drug tunnel for a story. “I had to explain to him, ‘Look, brother, this is not how it works.’”

R&K’s Unbylined series has yet to cover Myanmar, where I am based, so I took an informal survey from two friends, both local journalists and fixers with whom I have worked. They both said they wished journalists placed more trust in them as sources of information. They also said there was a lack of patience when it comes to Myanmar’s culture, even its bureaucratic culture. This is a place where permissions and forms are needed to travel to certain places. But not all visiting journalists understand how long or tedious a process that can be.

Fixers do feel like they get screwed over more than journalists feel they screw them over. There’s clearly a difference of opinion.”

As it happens, Unbylined is part of a bigger conversation about fixing that is just getting started.

The Vancouver-based Global Reporting Centre has just finished the largest survey of journalists and fixers ever conducted. Distributed mostly via word of mouth last year, the organization received hundreds of responses and has compiled preliminary data ahead of doing follow-up interviews. The answers revealed, or rather confirmed, the different ways foreign correspondents and fixers view aspects of their relationship.

“Mostly, it put numbers on the gut assumption. Even that I find to be quite valuable because sometimes your gut assumptions on these things can be totally off,” says journalist and GRC Executive Director Peter Klein in an interview.

Klein shared some of those numbers with CJR.

According to the survey, 67 percent of those who identified as fixers said they never or rarely get credit on a story. Meanwhile, journalists said they relied on fixers “often and always” 46 percent of the time, whereas fixers believe they are relied upon 83 percent of the time.

Survey questions also dealt with payment problems, trust, security, and editorial judgment.

“Fixers do feel like they get screwed over more than journalists feel they screw them over,” Klein says. “There’s clearly a difference of opinion.”

Klein says the GRC is going to present its research in full later this year, and afterwards, possibly look at creating a best-practices guide.

Until then, Unbylined remains a good place to start.

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Joe Freeman is a journalist who lives in Yangon and has reported from Cambodia, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Follow him on Twitter @joefree215.