A female reporter runs with a rebel fighter while evading snipers near Aleppo, Syria, October 10, 2014. (Reuters/Jalal Al-Mamo)
A female reporter runs with a rebel fighter while evading snipers near Aleppo, Syria, October 10, 2014. (Reuters/Jalal Al-Mamo)

Going it alone: More freelancers means less support, greater danger

Matthieu Aikins probably wouldn’t saunter into Afghanistan again in the way he did six years ago.

“I did a classic ‘pitch up with your backpack and notebook in a war zone’ thing as a freelancer,” said the Kabul-based Canadian journalist. “I took some fairly reckless risks in the beginning without much of a clue about what I was doing or connections to people who could advise me.”

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Attacks on the Press book cover
Attacks on the Press book cover

Aikins not only survived, he actually thrived, and he has a string of awards for his global reporting to show for it.

Such a daring lack of preparation might make safety experts in the news industry shudder, but it’s the way in which many of today’s successful journalists got their first break.

Aikins said that he sympathizes with freelancers who take risks to advance their careers, though he recognizes that security is crucial. Asked whether he would do things differently now, he hesitated, then said, “Difficult to answer that question, but, no, I would like to think that I would find smarter ways to approach this.”

He now has age and experience on his side, but for journalists starting out, particularly freelancers, the world is even more dangerous today.

The neutral space in which journalists can operate as independent witnesses has been shrinking for some time. The beheadings in 2014 in Syria of U.S. freelancers James Foley and Steven Sotloff, by militants belonging to the group known as Islamic State or ISIS, highlighted the danger. Journalists are now targets. Insurgent groups no longer use reporters to transmit news but instead kidnap them to make news.

“The media is quite a good target if you want publicity, because it makes a fuss about its own,” said Richard Sambrook, chair of the International News Safety Institute and a former head of newsgathering for the BBC. “If you capture a journalist or you murder a journalist, you get a lot of attention.”

Sambrook has watched the risk profile for reporters during INSI’s 12-year existence progress from physical security through the dangers of trauma and stress to kidnapping for ransom or propaganda.

Big news organizations have responded to that increasingly dangerous trajectory by pouring resources into hostile-environment and first-aid training, known in industry parlance as “HEFAT,” including providing safety equipment for staff and hiring security experts.

But the changing economics of the news business have prompted small or struggling outlets to shrink their foreign footprint and rely increasingly on freelance coverage.
Growing demand should have raised freelance rates, but other factors, including falling technology and communications costs, have boosted the number of young foreign reporters venturing into the field and kept pay rates relatively low for all but the most established freelancers. With the added cost of personal security, such as protective equipment, vests, helmets, and insurance, freelancers are caught in a perfect storm of low pay and high risk.

Within their ranks, freelancers fall into different categories when it comes to risk.

“You have the core of very professional responsible freelancers who work for established news organizations and have built their skills and their reputations over many years,” said John Daniszewski, vice president and senior managing editor for international news of The Associated Press, which hires freelancers around the world. “Then you have freelancers who are essentially starting out and hoping to make a name for themselves or to draw positive attention by daring work, and, finally, you have local journalists who may be working for a small news organization in their own country and sell material to international news organizations.”

Louisa Loveluck, a 25-year-old British freelancer in Cairo, is in the middle group. She is lucky to average $1,000 a month from a variety of stringing assignments and must pay for a translator and rent out of that.

“The most difficult thing about being a freelancer is the constant mental wear and tear of thinking about money,” Loveluck said, “and the fact that you don’t know whether someone has your back if something goes wrong.”

The point was brought home to Loveluck when she was attacked and threatened while covering the turmoil of 2013 in Cairo. A friend in a similar situation who was on the staff of a news outlet was pulled out. Loveluck had no money with which to evacuate and had to stay. “Pay and security do go hand in hand,” she said.

Loveluck said that she once worked for a publication that avoided any discussion of its duty to care for freelancers and had no plans in place for dealing with an emergency. “The only conversation about safety that would take place before an assignment would be ‘Take care’ or ‘Stay safe’ at the end of an email,” she said.

Many publications pay as little as 25 cents per word, which hardly covers the cost of reporting complex and dangerous stories.

“There is a huge mismatch between the amount of effort involved in writing a piece of journalism and how much money you get back from it,” said another Cairo-based freelancer, Tom Dale.

Dale, who went to Libya “on spec”–a speculative basis, without assurance that his reporting would find an outlet–to cover the conflict there, said that he would do it again. “It’s inevitably going to happen as long as competition for jobs in journalism is what it is,” he said of young reporters taking risks to make names for themselves. “Jobs are so scarce and there are so few entry routes that people are going to be making those choices. I know people who got good jobs after [Libya]. It’s not as if a lot of freelancers are saying to themselves, ‘I still want to be freelancing at 40.'”

Against the backdrop of low pay and growing danger, freelancers–mainly those who work for media in the developed world–have begun organizing themselves outside the traditional media development groups and charities that already help freelancers. Among those organizations is the Frontline Freelance Register in London, whose members commit to uphold professional journalistic standards, take a HEFAT course, buy appropriate insurance, and follow basic security protocols before deploying to a conflict zone.

“We got together and tried to work out what would make a difference,” said Vaughan Smith, a veteran freelance cameraman and founder of London’s Frontline Club (a physical space for international journalists; the Frontline Freelance Register is a group organized under the auspices of the club). “Our frustration was that there were organizations supporting freelancers … but they didn’t have a mandate to represent us, so we thought we would do something that’s never been done before and build a representative body for conflict freelancers.”

The Frontline Freelance Register has more than 400 members and is seeking to engage with media companies to improve freelancers’ pay and conditions.

“The freelance safety solution is to pay us better so that we can afford our own insurance and our own safety equipment–and we are a long way from that, but we’d like to move toward it,” Smith said. “We believe that if freelancers can demonstrate to the news industry that we are capable of organizing ourselves and capable of taking our safety seriously and collectively, then the industry will work with us, and journalism will benefit hugely when one considers the degree to which the industry has become reliant on freelance content.”

Like the freelance community itself, the news industry is not monolithic in its approach to security. Some broadcasters and wire agencies treat international freelancers and local stringers in conflict zones much as they do their own staffs, providing security equipment and support; cash-strapped outlets often pay only for the reporters’ submissions, which tend to be offered on spec.

The holy grail for independent journalists is an assignment or a retainer with one of the big media organizations that cover international news. Because such outlets have had reporters killed or kidnapped during the past two decades, they tend to be serious about security and treat freelancers on a par with their full-time staff.

That is the case with Reuters, said its editor-in-chief, Stephen Adler. He said the agency provides safety training, equipment, and medical coverage to all conflict reporters and has reorganized editorial structures to ensure safety. Reuters will not send a freelancer to a place that it would not send a staff member, although it would consider accepting material from a freelancer who was already working in such a place, said Adler, a member of CPJ’s board of directors. “We are not going to deprive somebody of their livelihood or ability to work for us because they happen to work in someplace dangerous,” he said. (Some journalists have criticized Reuters for relying on young photographers, including those affiliated with rebel groups, after local freelancer Molhem Barakat was killed in battle in December 2013.)

After the ISIS beheading videos were circulated in August 2014, the French news agency Agence France-Presse made public parts of its security policy. Its news director, Michèle Léridon, published a blog entry noting that AFP would not send journalists into areas held by ISIS or Syrian rebels.

“The idea is to dissuade potential journalists from taking such huge risks and to say to them, ‘Look, if you go there on your own and even if you bring us back great material, we won’t take it,'” Léridon told CPJ. By going public, Léridon said, she also “wanted to spread the message within AFP, because it’s hard for a photo editor, for example, to pass up a good image.” She added, “I stressed that we don’t take foreign material, but we continue to take news and photos from people who live there, from Syrians.”

Likewise, The Associated Press will not accept spec material and treats its freelancers the same as staff when it comes to safety, according to foreign editor Daniszewski.

“I think maybe there is a competitive short-term disadvantage in some of these cases, but, otherwise, the alternative of having a race to the bottom, of having no rules and causing people to take irresponsible risk, and that having to be responsible for them if they were giving you material, we feel that in the long run as a responsible news organization we need to set and follow some standards,” Daniszewski said. “We feel strongly that if someone is providing you material that you are morally responsible for them.”

Some experienced freelancers, however, believe that they are the best judge of their risk and balk at the idea that all spec material would be rejected.

“I work with responsible outlets,” said freelancer Toby Muse, who has worked in Latin America and the Middle East, among other hot spots. “If anything, I think some outlets can be too cautious. The whole idea of ‘We will not purchase anything from freelancers who have been in Syria or in Baghdad,’ I disagree with that fundamentally. I think these things that are put in place with the idea of protecting freelancers can actually end up cutting off avenues of work for freelancers.”

Muse said that refusing spec material limits freelancers’ ability to report crucial news. “One way of freelancing is: A big story explodes–often it’s in a dangerous part of the world–and they get there quickly; they can get there before others, or maybe they’ve been there already, just hanging out, and the major media wasn’t there for reasons of security or reasons that their correspondent was covering something else in another part of the region,” he said. “So when you shut that down, I don’t think the freelancer benefits at all.”

The aim of employers not to encourage risky behavior and the need for stringers to exploit their competitive advantage are key to discussions about a code of ethics and best practices in conflict zones. Initiatives led by the Frontline Freelance Register seek commitments from freelancers to respect basic safety protocols and not work without safety training and insurance. Ideally, news outlets would agree not to hire untrained or uninsured freelancers and to pay in a fair and timely manner for freelance content. At the time of this writing, no agreement on such guidelines had been reached.

“Everyone in the journalist community who deals with international and conflict reporting should step up their game,” said Philip Balboni, president and CEO of GlobalPost, the online news site to which James Foley, a freelancer, contributed. “We need to get behind these new guidelines and they should be as tough as possible,” he said.

A few advocates for tougher safety protocols have suggested a system of accrediting freelancers who enter conflict zones such as Syria. Accreditation would depend upon journalists showing proof of HEFAT qualifications and insurance. The idea is controversial among freelancers, who see it as giving power to an arbitrary authority that would decide who may and who may not gather news.

The International News Safety Institute’s Sambrook welcomes a code of ethics but questions going beyond that. “It is quite difficult for there to be an enforced code of practice or getting as far as accreditation,” he said. “Some groups want to put in place some kind of accreditation or professional standard and enforce it either for freelancers, or training … it is quite a difficult road to go down. Where you shift responsibility of risk, it’s quite problematic.”

If the trend toward greater awareness of safety concerns continues, accreditation may not be necessary, because both new freelancers and Internet-born news outlets understand the need, some industry experts say. Also, many mainstream freelancers want to dissociate themselves from the “war tourists” who sometimes appear on the front line.

“No question, there are unprofessional freelancers,” Smith, of the Frontline Freelance Register, said. “There are people out there who haven’t had enough love as children … Wars attract certain characters, some of whom can be the greatest journalists; others are looking for something that they are probably not likely to find there. They are not serious, and we don’t want to be associated with them. We need distance from them, because the industry is never going to take us seriously unless we can separate ourselves from them.”

Freelancers are also aware of the need for training and of the offerings of charities such as the Rory Peck Trust in London and Canada’s Freelance Forum Fund, which helped pay for training for some of the stringers interviewed for this article.

“We have definitely seen an increase in interest from freelancers wanting to get hostile-environment training,” noted Frank Smyth, founder and executive director of Global Journalist Security, a U.S.-based training firm. “That’s a trend that’s going up. People seem to be getting the idea that that’s a dangerous world out there and freelancers are on the front lines, and training is essential,” Smyth, who is also a senior journalist security adviser to CPJ, said. “The presence of ISIS, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia has gotten everyone’s attention.”

One reason that more reporters are resorting to training support from such nonprofits is that it can be expensive. A standard five-day HEFAT course runs between $500 and $700 per day, plus travel and accommodations.

Some online news outlets with an edgy approach to conflict reporting, such as VICE News and BuzzFeed, are also beginning to recognize the need to treat reporters working in conflict zones fairly and providing safety training and protocols.

“But,” INSI’s Sambrook cautioned, “there will be other new upstarts that don’t have the same experience or same resources, and that is a worry. Part of the responsibility of support groups like ours is–without wagging a finger, or accusing–to try to help them understand what they need to think about as they start to enter dangerous kinds of coverage.”

Smith, of London’s Frontline Freelance Register, hopes to at least convince news executives that it is in their financial interest to treat freelancers better.

“A more generous engagement with freelancers would still be very good value for money and is certainly part of the solution to the troubles we face in gathering the news,” Smith said. “If we don’t want to withdraw from the world, which is clearly what we are doing, freelancers are a way of doing this. It’s part of what’s needed for the challenge we face in covering the world with broken business models.”

Robert Mahoney is deputy director of CPJ and writes about press freedom issues. He has worked as a correspondent in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.