The Risks of Freelance Reporting

James Foley shortly before he was kidnapped by a group that sold him to ISIS.

This morning jihadists belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) beheaded Steven Sotloff.  Two weeks ago the same British-accented militant murdered James Foley. Both events were recorded on tape and sent out to the mass media as part of an ongoing propaganda war against the West’s military intervention in the Middle East. Both Sotloff and Foley were freelance journalists who traveled to Syria to cover the crumbling Asad regime. Their deaths, while tragic beyond belief, also highlight a major problem with the way that mainstream publications choose to cover the war at the expense of their people in the field. Neither Foley nor Sotloff were household names. They submitted their work to lesser-known news outlets like the Global Post and Foreign Policy. They traveled abroad on shoestring budgets–like I have many times before–and embedded themselves in the heart of the conflict. They made very little money when they sold their stories and photographs to the media, and it seems that the only reason they were there was to raise awareness of the horrible on-going violent conflagrations in the Middle East that have taken far too many lives already.

Reporter’s lives are often at risk in the field, but in the last decade freelancers have borne the brunt of the consequences. Even though news budgets have contracted, news organizations are still thirsty for front line coverage. Since they decline to send their own people they depend primarily on journalists like Sotloff and Foley to get to the front lines no matter what risks they might take along the way.  Publications see this as an easy way to cut costs. There are certainly many writers brave or stupid enough to put themselves at the heart of a conflict, but media companies who hire freelancers balk whenever one of their temporary correspondents asks for insurance, or logistical support should they get into trouble.

Every reporter sent by NPR or the New York Times life-saving Kidnap and Ransom insurance polices on their heads. They often have safe houses to report to, logistical staff to help them get out of trouble. Keeping a staff correspondent safe is expensive business, but it also means that when they get into trouble that professional hostage negotiators will help secure their release and, often pay the million dollar ransoms that generally get allocated in these sorts of situations.  Though there are certainly problems with paying ransoms as it simply encourages future kidnappings–for abductees a secure payment will mean the difference between getting a ticket back home or becoming a bloody piece of propaganda. 


American journalist Steven Sotloff (Center with dark helmet) talks to Libyan rebels on Al Dafniya front line, 25 km west of Misrata. 02 June 2011.

American journalist Steven Sotloff (Center with dark helmet) talks to Libyan rebels on Al Dafniya front line, 25 km west of Misrata. 02 June 2011.

Foley and Sotloff did not have insurance. Reporter Michael Scott Moore who has been a hostage in Somalia since 2012, also never had insurance.  So instead of being released, Moore’s only hope is not to be sold to the sort of extremist who is willing to take the couple thousand dollars his family might be able to dish out, instead of someone in ISIS. Reporters from the NYTimes, Des Spiegel and other mainstream publications have all managed to secure their freedom through back-room negotiations.

It’s vitally important to keep the flow of unbiased news coming out of these conflict areas. If Foleys and Sotloffs don’t got to Syria then the horrors of what his happening there might not leak across the borders. However, there needs to be a commitment from publications that use their material to cover the cost of the risks. Just because there are far too many young journalists in conflict zones (as Sarah Topol reported at the beginning of the Arab Spring) is not an excuse to use that inter-journalist competition to pay rates that are as “low as the market will bear”. Instead publications need to step up and acknowledge the risks that reporters take in the field and cover them fairly.  It isn’t right for magazines to reject a story because a reporter wanted to have basic protections before they leave for a foreign country, and then willingly buy the material when they go abroad without it.

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