Muzaffar salma / Reuters / Landov

The unsung heroes of conflict reporting

Fixers take enormous risks for journalism but remain even more exploited than freelancers

October 9, 2014 6:00AM ET

James Foley’s beheading by Islamic militants in August has led to an increased interest in the role of freelance journalists, who report from the world’s most dangerous countries without the infrastructure, support, resources and salary enjoyed by most staff reporters. We tend to both pity and lionize freelancers who, like Foley, put their lives at risk for a story — forgetting, perhaps, that there’s as much to be gained as lost. War gives young journalists their calling, their name in magazines posing as expert war correspondents, information — sans irony — gleaned last minute from Twitter. For a certain type of Westerner, a well-written article, an exclusive video, the perfect photograph can make a career overnight.

Matthieu Aikins’ Rolling Stone article “Last tango in Kabul” directly addresses this question in eloquent yet sobering prose. “It was the high life,” he writes of the period after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. “We had it good, even … the junior reporters and freelancers and entry-level NGO types. There weren’t any jobs back home, and here we were, working our dream gigs. Some of us got killed or kidnapped, or lost our minds, but a lot more of us got rich or made our careers.”

Aikins’ article eulogizes a city that came alive through conflict, occupation and the accompanying Western-constructed news industry. He paints a deft and sorry picture of the empty shell left behind as Westerners jumped ship onto the next headlining country, leaving those who helped them behind to squabble over the dying visa program to the West and their way out of massive unemployment rates and an uncertain future.

Among those left behind are the native journalists employed by foreign correspondents to help them report in countries that they may not be completely comfortable and familiar with. Arguably, these so-called fixers are the true unsung heroes of conflict reporting and remain even more exploited than freelancers like Foley. Whereas Foley at least gained credit and a byline for the words he contributed, the fixer who helped him and others like him probably did not.

Risky business

I became aware of exactly how much risk fixers take when I hired one in Afghanistan — an experienced, trilingual, university-educated Afghan in his 20s moonlighting from his day job as a fixer for a major American newspaper. He took me to a small village, Budyali, to do some research on drones. We were driving down a road in Jalalabad when a bomb went off about 50 yards ahead of us. We all jumped, and we swiftly rerouted, with little more than a few beads of sweat on the brow of the driver and fixer to indicate that once again they had escaped death. It made me feel more than a little disgusted with myself that I was paying this man to risk his life for me.

I subsequently became fascinated by the role of the fixer, and during my month in Kabul I took the opportunity to question as many of them as I could about their work. After I returned to the U.S., I called several more who were working with journalist friends. Most of the fixers I spoke to were from Afghanistan and Syria, and all were under contract to major Western newspapers, TV networks and radio stations. They spoke to me and agreed to be quoted on condition of anonymity, fearing — correctly — that to criticize the hand that fed them, would probably mean a termination of their (usually noncontracted) employment and any opportunities to advance in the field.

“Ali,” who reported from Afghanistan from 2007 to 2012, recently left a job for a major U.S. newspaper. He had little positive to say about the experience. “They don’t know s--- about the country,” he said of the correspondents he worked with. “I can’t tell you how much I pitch story or they do.”

He said that in Afghanistan, fixers did 75 percent of the reporting. “If it’s a suicide bombing or an attack, [we] go to the scene, and we send everything to whoever writes the article. We’re never given the chance to prove our writing skills. We come up with story ideas because we know the country very well. We do all the reporting, get the appointments, tell them who we should talk to or interview. And when the story comes out, it’s one byline and, if we’re lucky, a tag line with our name.”

For some foreigners, Afghanistan represented book deals, viewers, screenplays for movies starring hunks with dust-covered fatigues and furrowed brows.

Part of the problem is that there is no defining standard or criterion for reporting from war zones; it depends on the mood or personality of the foreign journalist. Another is that the ethics of Western journalism preclude paying sources for stories. Journalists don’t pay people who give them stories or people they interview for stories. They do, however, pay fixers and stringers — who can and sometimes do pay for the stories their employers require. It’s just one more paradox in the supposedly impartial world of Western journalism, compounded by the fact the relationship between journalist and fixer is rarely formally established.

As David Zucchino, a national correspondent at The Los Angeles Times, recently told me, “I generally don’t sign any sort of formal agreement with fixers or translators. In many cases, such as during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt or the revolution in Libya, I’m only in the country a few weeks, on deadline … It’s usually just a handshake deal.” He said he credits fixers and interpreters when they do a significant amount of interviewing.

While Zucchino said he has never witnessed outright abuse, he recognized the power imbalance at play. “Local fixers and translators are risking their lives to assist me and are in much more danger than I am because they are well known locally and cannot easily leave their home countries if they are threatened because of their work with the foreign media,” he said. 

Opportunities abroad

When I asked Aikins about his relationship with fixers, he acknowledged the abuse that occurs in the journalism industry. He went on to how he tries to make the relationship mutually beneficial.

“Because I’ve mostly lived and worked in Afghanistan for the past six years, I’ve had the chance to develop relationships with the Afghans that I work with, and I try to make sure that they’re getting more out of our work than just a paycheck,” he said. “For them, it might mean developing their skills in a way that furthers their career or finding opportunities to pursue education abroad. We take risk our lives as war correspondents because we’re motivated by the thrill of the story and the professional opportunities that they offer. For the guy next to you, he might simply be taking care of his family. And what will happen to them if he gets hurt or killed?”

Unlike many war correspondents, who are often based in major cities behind walled compounds and reliant on stringers and fixers to do their ground reporting, Aikins travels widely, goes to dangerous places and meets with everyday people — and as a result is well respected among fixers. He is quick to point out that publications like The New York Times are getting better at acknowledging the contributions that their foreign workers make.

“But there’s a lot more that could be done,” he said, noting that as a freelancer, he has more time than his colleagues on staff at daily papers. “My working relationship with my Afghan colleague is a little different from the standard fixer-journalist relationship. I speak Persian, and I mostly find the stories and contacts from the networks I’ve built up over the last six years. [My fixer] acts as a research assistant, a Pashto translator and a rock-solid backup when we’re in hairy situations.”

Sharing the credit

For some foreigners, the U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq represented not just major humanitarian disasters; they represented sizable book deals, great viewing figures, screenplays for movies starring blue-eyed hunks with dust-covered fatigues, square jaws and furrowed brows. For fixers, the wars represented heartbreakingly personal tragedies as well as much-needed opportunities for work in countries whose economic, social and political foundations were destroyed. Helping a foreigner might have been the only available paid work, but it might also have sounded their death knell if the wrong people viewed their work as collusion with the enemy.

Those journalists who profit from yet fail to credit those on the ground who are taking additional risks without the luxury of either a foreign bureau or a foreign passport to assist them seems not just remiss but also inordinately cruel. Our media organizations need a better protocol for these practices that is informed by the experience of and conversations with staff journalists, freelancers and fixers. We need guidelines that will protect the interests of all parties and help redress the unequal relationships that hint ominously at the unacknowledged imperial power struggles surrounding the industry.

Ruth Fowler is a British journalist and screenwriter living in the U.S.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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