Behind the Byline: The human toll of how we (still) get news out of Syria

 On February 22, 2012, journalists Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik were killed in a government attack on a media center in Baba Amr, Syria. On August 19, 2014, a video of the beheading of journalist James Foley in Syria was released to the public. Less than a month later, the recorded beheading of Steven Sotloff, another journalist, was released. ISIS claimed the murders of both Foley and Sotloff. 

In response to the murders, some news organizations determined they would no longer accept freelance stories out of areas where they would not send their own correspondents. Agence France-Presse, The Guardian, The Times of London, The Independent, and a number of organizations based in the United States implemented this new policy publicly or privately. The decision did not, however, include “locals.” This enabled these same organizations, and others, to quietly build competitive networks of stringers across Syria, reconfiguring journalism in the process. 

I covered Syria until shortly before the Baba Amr attack for AFP. Along with our colleagues and competitors, we were almost entirely reliant on stringers for some key parts of the newsmaking process. I have since studied the relationship between leading news organizations based in what is referred to as the Global North and stringers living in what is commonly called the Global South. For the past six years, I have interviewed and worked alongside stringers and their editors at newspapers, newswires, and television networks to document the newsmaking process out of crisis zones. I’ve outlined below the key internal differentiations and findings that have guided and been shaped by my dive into understanding the relationship between news organizations and stringers in Syria. The picture that emerges from this research is a complex, hierarchical ecology of newsmaking that marginalizes those it depends on for coverage. Stringers face forms of precarity that further compound the difficulties that already confront foreign freelancers. 

 

Are stringers freelancers? 

The job of a stringer, like many roles in journalism, is malleable. Like freelancing, stringing entails a form of work where journalists are paid by the story. Neither freelancers nor stringers are technically employees of the organizations they are working for, adding even more uncertainty to one of the riskiest roles in reporting war. Freelancers, however, can report for different news organizations. Stringers generally agree to work under the expectation of exclusivity. 

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Stringers are not dissimilar to the traditional model of beat reporters or regional correspondents. The New York Times ran a full story dedicated to the centrality of stringers inside the United States. Outside the borders of the United States, including but not limited to war zones, stringers often function, and are expected to function, as aides to foreign correspondents dispatched to cover stories in countries and languages they may be unfamiliar with. In Syria and Yemen, home to another devastating conflict, stringers are largely “locals,” a term which invokes positional hierarchy and homogenizes millions, who are hired to report on the most dangerous stories in the world by organizations which may or may not grant them a monthly retainer or stipend. And perhaps most critically, they provide the video and photo content that validates the journalistic and institutional authority of “having been there.” 

 

Key Findings

Physical Precarity 

For years, foreign freelancers have decried the risks they are expected to take and the parallel lack of institutional resources and support they receive, particularly in covering Syria. But as many of the Syrian and Yemeni stringers I interviewed pointed out, freelancers can, in theory, leave. Stringers cannot. Reporting from the frontlines is dangerous work for all reporters, chief among them freelancers. Reporting where one can be specifically targeted based on the intersection of their identity as a journalist and as a member of the local communityas in, the identity of a stringerraises additional risks. If you are known to file images of attacks that reflect poorly on your community, rumors of espionage and treason may begin to circulate. And  that comes with a high toll. 

 

Institutional Precarity

Some of these organizations have spared no means to help support their stringers, particularly those in Syria. The stringers I spoke with largely praised their employers for having their best interests at heart and treating them “like family.” Multiple stringers recounted stories in which their editors helped them, and in some cases their spouses and children, flee horrific conditions. Some were granted asylum thanks to the contacts of the news organizations they report for. Others reported receiving medical treatment at the expense of the company. But caring for someone like family is not an earned labor right. That translates to a dynamic in which the compensation and permanency of stringers’ work is at the organization’s discretion and not a contractual obligation for services. Individual support distracts from widespread institutional precarity. 

Remuneration, according to every editor I interviewed, is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, sometimes including within the same country. Credit via byline is likewise evaluated on the sensitivity of the story and the risk the stringer may face. That risk, however, is often evaluated unilaterally by the organization. This type of institutional sway over whether or not a stringer is given credit for work is a large uncertainty that stringers contend with. As Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim told me, “locals” often have little say in assessing what risk means. They also have little say in whether their name is credited on their images or included in a byline. And for a stringer, like for any journalist, your byline and your portfolio are the strongest guarantees of future employment. 

For stringers, there is no guarantee of continued employment with the news organization once the war or conflict is over, or if interest in the story wanes. There is no consistent policy for payment, insurance, or end-of-service rights. There are generally no pensions. Economic precarity is familiar to all gig workers, but there are unique complications when you are of the crisis zone you are reporting from.

Economic Precarity

Economically, then, precarity is complicated on multiple levels. Demand for coverage is relatively high (the institutional equivalent of the adage “if it bleeds, it leads”). Demand and compensation, however, are two different matters. Payment can be some of the lowest in the industry, dependent in part on the currency in which stringers are paid. Getting the money to stringers in Yemen and Syria can be a challenge for employers in the absence of functional banks or Western Unions. Paying stringers in Baba Amr, for example, presented extreme challenges. Foreign correspondents have personally carried money with them to pay stringers. One video editor recounted the struggle to find a way to get cash to the surviving members of a stringer’s family, who had been killed while filming, as there were no banks to wire money to. 

Those who are paid in local currency must further contend with what the pay is worth. The Lebanese lira, the currency in which Beirut-based stringers and other journalists are paid, is in freefall. The Syrian lira hit a record low in June 2020. The Yemeni riyal has steadily lost its value against the dollar since the escalation of the conflict in 2015. In all three countries, people are hungry, starving or face imminent starvation. Famine is officially looming in Yemen

Those who are paid in euros or dollars face different obstacles. The currency goes farther — on condition it reaches the stringer. And even if it does, to gradually or suddenly stand out on your street as more economically privileged carries with it its own risks, and guilt. Economic collapse often goes hand-in-hand with war. News organizations may be able to wire payment to individual bank accounts for stringers based in Lebanon, many of whom continue to report on Syria from a distance. But Lebanon’s banking sector collapse means that the ability to withdraw the money, especially in highly valuable foreign currency, is improbable. Economic privilege is also always relative. As one photo stringer, who requested all details of his identity and of this story be withheld, recounted, to suddenly be able to own a second-hand car makes you a target of political suspicion. If you are paid in Euros or dollars, which go far in some economies, rumors of espionage and treason once again may surface. 

Conclusion

These conditions are not, of course, unique to stringers. But for stringers, risk runs far beyond physical. The intrinsic institutional, economic, and existential precarity of stringing in wartime multiplies the occupational hazards of journalism. 

Documenting the work of stringers in Syria and Yemen, and elsewhere around the world, is a critical step in creating a record for the history of journalism and its study. But it is only one part of the broader change needed. Increasing institutional transparency around the existence and work of stringers, and creating more space for stringers’ input into risk management, are just as critical in ensuring journalism treats its own according to the principles it upholds as a field. 

This piece is adapted from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s weekly newsletter.

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Natacha Yazbeck is a 2020 Knight News Innovation Fellow for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism