The Problem with ‘Fixers’

Illustration by Lisk Feng

In April, Neha Dixit, a journalist in India, received an email from a professor at Northwestern University. The subject read, “Fixer needed.” The message: “My colleagues and I are working on a story about illegal organ trafficking in India and are in need of sources for the story. We were wondering if you could help us with finding sources and guiding us around Delhi?” Dixit was furious. In the following days she received more emails from reporters, with similar subject lines: “Looking for fixer to report on India’s election.” In each case, the language was blunt and unsolicitous.

Dixit has been an investigative journalist for 13 years, publishing widely read stories on human rights violations and gender-based violence. In 2016, she won the Chameli Devi Jain Award—the highest honor given to female journalists in India—for exposing the trafficking of young tribal girls by Hindu fundamentalist groups. She occasionally coordinates reporting projects for a North American news broadcaster, but chooses to leave her byline out. “Their storytelling is different than the way I do my work,” Dixit says. “Since it is for an international audience, they try to simplify complex matters, and lose out on the nuance.” 

Why not hire Dixit as a reporter, rather than as a fixer, which would likely lead to a better understanding of India’s complex realities? A few years ago, I published an essay about my own experiences as a fixer in India—and was immediately inundated with messages from journalists across the world who were frustrated by being seen as on-the-ground logisticians for parachuting foreign correspondents sent to cover stories that they, the locals, had been reporting for years. 

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The difference between a correspondent and a “fixer” is not one of experience or qualification, but of geography. Local journalists hired as fixers by foreign journalists are often established reporters and can offer in-country expertise in the form of helpful contacts and language skills—and, again, may well have already covered the story in question. What they lack, in comparison with the correspondents and outlets paying for their services, is the big-name cachet that in the end only money can afford. In 2016 and 2017, the Global Reporting Centre surveyed more than 450 journalists from 70 countries on the relationship between correspondents and fixers, and characterized it as “a deep-pocketed foreign reporter hiring a local journalist in an often-poorer country, to do his or her bidding,” resulting in troubling power imbalances. More than half of the fixers surveyed said that they were frequently put in danger.

The title “foreign correspondent” has long been synonymous with whiteness, maleness, and imperialism—journalists fly in from North America, Europe, and Australia to cover the poverty and wars of the non-Western world. In recent years, a push for diversity has meant that more women are pursuing stories in what was once the domain of men—conflict zones and fractured democracies—or in traditionally private female spaces. But the opportunities for journalists in non-Western nations to tell their own stories in international outlets have not been as great. Overwhelmingly, foreign reportage still relies on a model of Western, and largely white, reporters hiring local journalists in subservient roles.

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The expectation that the most authoritative journalists are from the West is stubbornly pervasive. Last year I reported from Sarajevo. When my American and European colleagues introduced themselves as reporters working for major papers, the locals didn’t blink. But I was asked: “Are Indians interested in Bosnian elections?” No, Indians are not interested in Bosnian elections—I was writing for international news publications. 

Who gets to tell the story is also a function of who gets to travel. I carry an Indian passport, which allows me entry to fewer countries than an American or European passport. I often wonder: Would a journalist from Pakistan who is hired as a fixer by an American journalist be able to travel as easily to report in the US? If he managed to secure a visa, could he afford to hire his American colleague as his fixer?

 

There is a Facebook group for journalists where writers, photographers, and video producers from the Global North commonly post this question: “I am going to [country in the Global South]. Who is the best fixer there?” This is in part how Nincy Perdomo became one of the most recommended fixers for foreign journalists visiting Honduras. Perdomo has been a journalist for eight years, most of that time for Agence France-Presse. For the past two years, she has been covering parliamentary politics for the local media. She has worked with numerous journalists, including some with large video crews; because shoots with many moving parts are complicated, she is often called to clear last-minute hurdles. “Arranging for a backup plan stems from my years of networking and my roster of contacts,” she tells me. “Without the context and the contacts, the story is just an idea.” 

A foreign reporter’s ignorance of local customs or lack of decorum can cause all kinds of problems that fall to a fixer to solve. A few years ago, my relationship with academic contacts in Mumbai was jeopardized when I put visiting students from a California journalism school in touch with them and the students failed to show up to the interviews. I shouldn’t have been surprised: their professor didn’t even refer to me as a working journalist. It didn’t occur to the students that they might cause me professional harm. “Our professor told us that you work as a fixer,” one said.

The difference between a correspondent and a “fixer” is not one of experience or qualification, but of geography.

Juan Carlos, a photojournalist based in San Salvador, has extensively documented gang violence in postwar El Salvador, as well as the Iraq War and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He told me about a time he helped a visiting American photojournalist gain access to a major city hospital to shoot a story on abortion, which is criminalized in El Salvador. Later, he received a call from the hospital: the American had violated the facility’s rules. The American flew home and published her photos; meanwhile, Carlos was barred from entering the hospital again.

Carlos and I met in 2016, when I was selected as one of six International Women’s Media Foundation Adelante Reporting Fellows. He was hired as one of our fixers. Being on this side of the relationship was new to me. Working with Carlos in El Salvador—my first experience as a foreign correspondent—I wondered to myself: How could I avoid repeating the same mistaken assumptions others had made about me, not only in my relationship with Carlos, but in my reporting? Was I doing enough to listen, to go beyond my own preconceived notions?

 

What might be a more equitable model for international stories? Adding a credit line for local contributors would be a good start. Some foreign reporters might thank their fixers in their social-media posts, but a hat tip isn’t enough. Every story from a foreign location in an international news publication bears the fingerprints of an unnamed local journalist without whom that story wouldn’t have been possible. In the Global Reporting Centre survey, 60 percent of journalists stated that they never or rarely give fixers credit in their published work, though 86 percent of fixers said they would like for that to happen.

Institutions are slowly taking note of the power imbalance represented by the term “fixer.” The Martin Adler Prize, instituted by the Rory Peck Trust, is one of the few awards dedicated to honoring local contributing journalists. In 2016, the prize committee described the winner as “regarded by visiting journalists as one of the region’s most trusted and knowledgeable fixers.” The committee has since adjusted its language, now honoring “a local freelancer who has made a significant contribution to newsgathering.”

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Carlos avoids the title “fixer,” preferring to be named a “producer,” which he feels grants him more authority to work collaboratively in shaping the final story. “People see you as an asset when you tell them you are a producer,” he says. “They view you as someone who adds value, as an equal.” One can hope for international journalism to always reflect that ideal, wherein the visiting foreign journalist and the local journalist meet on equal terms, each respecting the other’s role.

In the past year I have been working with Paul Salopek, an American journalist who eschews the term “fixer” in favor of “walking partner.” This is meant literally—Salopek has been crossing northern India on foot for his project, called the Out of Eden Walk. I have accompanied him along parts of his journey, doing interpretation and research. Early on, I asked Salopek to consider me a partner in his journalism. Working in close collaboration, each of us have brought our perspectives on various subjects to bear on stories—which have been stronger for this diversity of input.

It is up to editors to see all contributors as journalists.

Small gestures like these are welcome, yet the media industry as a whole remains dismissive of local reporters. “Journalists who travel around the world are not ready to entertain this conversation,” Dixit tells me. “These are journalists who have built their careers based on power dynamics.”

Dixit, Perdomo, and Carlos had no qualms about sharing their negative experiences with me. But fixing gigs come by way of word-of-mouth recommendations, and not all fixers are able to call out wrongdoing or demand better treatment. Many local journalists have no wish to burn bridges or to be perceived as a rabble-rouser. “Give me 10 years, and then I’ll be all right with telling my story openly,” a photojournalist says. “For now, I cannot afford to give my name when I am building my byline.”

 

The division between correspondents and fixers is not only a matter of title, compensation, and credit. It is also what determines who gets to tell the story. The role of journalism is to question the dominant authority and destabilize reductionist narratives. But too often, Western journalists are the sole authors of stories about non-Western subjects, and the inequitable relationships within journalism get reproduced in the published work. The result is a glut of predictable and monotonous news pieces about rape in India and war in El Salvador.

In 2013, Dixit was hired as a fixer by a German filmmaker for a documentary on women’s safety in India. The filmmaker expected Dixit to fetch her from the airport and drive her around. Dixit complied. But then the filmmaker demanded, “I want to interview a rape survivor who can speak English, for my camera.” Dixit felt she had to speak up. (Hearing this story, I was reminded of the 1978 memoir by Edward Behr, Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?) Many foreign journalists might not be so shameless. But there’s a word for the act of flying in to claim ownership of the stories of others: imperialism.

It is up to editors to see all contributors to a story as journalists, without typecasting based on geography or ethnicity or status. Within the journalism industry, we must recognize the crucial perspective local reporters bring to stories. Dixit isn’t holding her breath. “It seems like there won’t be any acknowledgment that the term ‘fixer’ is discriminatory,” she says, “until The New York Times says so.”

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This article has been updated.

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Priyanka Borpujari is an independent journalist based in India. She is also a former Fulbright scholar. She has walked 1,000 kilometers across India as part of the journalism project Out of Eden Walk.