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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Protecting freelancers: A Conversation with Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists

When I first heard that the Committee to Protect Journalists had introduced a new set of standards on the protection of freelancers, I was skeptical. Would any of the major news organizations publicly embrace these standards? Even more importantly, would they live by them?

It’s not that news editors don’t care about the journalists they hire. It’s just that taking care of freelancers costs a lot of money, money that news organizations are scrambling to save in the era of budget cuts, layoffs, and the closure of international news bureaus. When we’re talking about “big brand” news reporting, in other words, we’re talking about huge machines—machines that are bigger than any individual news executive. Still, individual freelancers are dying more and more frequently, pointing to the timeliness of this new set of standards.

Only two months after the CPJ’s announcement, it’s still too early to tell what impact the standards will have. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma’s website provides a list of the news organizations that endorsed this call for reform, and the list includes some venerable names: The Associated Press and the BBC, just to mention a few. But it’s difficult to say exactly how these standards—remarkable in their breadth and commendable in their goals—will be applied.

For media ethicists like me, the question of application is key. I specialize in global journalism ethics, and I want to think past the perpetual critique of what journalists should be doing for their public. While that question remains vital to the field of media ethics, it is also essential that we think about the ethical treatment of the journalists themselves. How are major news organizations grappling with the question of safety in the field, for example, and what do these organizations owe to the myriad news employees who do not possess that increasingly elusive title—that of the “staff correspondent?”

I recently spoke with CPJ executive director Joel Simon, and he made an important point: Even when we’re talking about the best practices for ensuring the safety of journalists, we should avoid abstract concepts. In order to do the question justice, we need to think more precisely about the historical, economic, and geopolitical context in which a given news organization is operating. Here’s an edited account of our conversation.

LP:       What could managing editors and news directors do to make war correspondents safer?

JS:       First of all, most of the violence committed against journalists is not committed against international journalists from newsrooms overseen by managing editors. Most of the journalists who are killed in conflict zones are local journalists, and they’re targeted because of their coverage. And a much smaller percentage of them are international correspondents, and most of those are actually crossfire incidents. So certainly when you’re talking about international correspondents and you have a historical perspective, I think safety training is very helpful. And there has been more of an acceptance and recognition of the importance of adequate security training and equipment. But if you look at the information ecosystem, then the role that managing editors can play is fairly limited because many of the folks who are in this ecosystem and providing information about conflicts are certainly not international or Western correspondents. And some of them don’t want to even necessarily self-identify as journalists.

LP:      So, in terms of this ecosystem, what would you say about how it’s been changing—the relationship between these big news brands and the outsourcing of labor to these less protected news employees?

JS:       Well, look. I spent my whole career as a freelance journalist in Latin America. So, this is not a new phenomenon. There’s always been a reliance on freelancers, particularly in these sorts of “second tier” conflicts, for the kind of things that may not have made the front pages every day, but you had to cover. But it’s become more pronounced for a variety of reasons. One is that the media industry is less financially stable because the revenue stream has been disrupted by technology, and so they have fewer resources to support fully staffed bureaus. And that’s been well documented, and everyone knows all about that. Then you’ve got the risk profile. In some parts of the world—this is not true everywhere, but certainly in some parts of the world—being a Westerner or being a Western journalist is so dangerous that you’re not able to move around in a way that would allow you to carry out the most basic kind of reporting. So you need to rely on local people who can blend in more easily. And the third thing is that the technology has made it possible for people who are in the right place at the right time to engage in journalism and feed this news cycle. There’s always been this kind of—now it would be called crowdsourcing—element to covering major global events. But now these people can participate directly. That changes the dynamic. And the last thing I would mention is that when you look at conflict zones and the role that journalists have played historically, what’s made journalists relatively safe in conflict zones is their utility to all parties. And that utility was a function of the collective information monopoly that journalists exercised. You wanted to communicate even if you were in a pretty rough neighborhood and you were kind of unsafe for yourself. You really didn’t have a choice other than to talk to the media. So the media was inherently useful, and that helped make journalists safe. And now that’s no longer the case. There are alternative ways of communicating, particularly if you’re communicating with likeminded people or supporters. And so journalists are less essential, and that’s also had a profound impact that sort of recalibrated the risk in many parts of the world.

LP:      What would you say is the responsibility for safety or care that should be taken, when it comes to these local news employees or freelancers?

JS:       We’ve developed guidelines, and they have been endorsed by a number of media organizations. And they try to lay out these responsibilities. They focus more on assignments, but they lay out pretty clearly what the obligations of editors and media companies are and what the obligations of journalists and the freelancers themselves are, in terms of training and professionalism. The issue is complex because you’re dealing with different communities. And you’re also dealing with different kinds of media organizations. Some are relatively large and have the resources to support training and pay at a level that allows freelancers to invest in the kind of equipment and training they need. And some are less well funded and have a different culture. And it’s hard to get them to take on this responsibility. There are some local media outlets that really have far fewer resources and don’t necessarily have the same kind of journalistic culture. Some of them are highly partisan or are compromised in some other way. And then you’re dealing with different communities. You’re dealing with staff correspondents, and you’re dealing with international freelancers, and you’re dealing with local fixers and stringers, and you’re dealing with local journalists who are working for local media. And then the international media is picking up information from those sources. I think the broadest answer is to say that if you are an international news organization, you need to have the broadest possible vision and understanding for this information ecosystem, and recognize that you have a responsibility not only for the individual that you employ or have contracted but for all the different pieces that allow that person to function.

LP:      Is there anything in place to hold people accountable for this responsibility?

JS:       These guidelines are really directed at international news organizations hiring international freelancers. They don’t really address you if you’re a Mexican newspaper and you’re based in Mexico City and you’ve got a stringer. Or you’re a Pakistani newspaper and you have a stringer in the FATA. Then, these guidelines are going to seem very, very aspirational. I mean, theoretically they should apply, but the practical matter is that they would not. So these guidelines are really for international news organizations hiring international freelancers. So, I don’t think there is accountability. I mean, there’s accountability within news organizations. There’s accountability created by the fact that there is some attention being paid to these lapses, and there’s the sort of shame factor that could function sometimes. But there’s no mechanism across the industry to ensure accountability.

LP:      I’m also wondering about the information that the CPJ gathers on sexual assault in the field.

JS:       We did a big project looking at this issue. We don’t have good data on sexual violence. It’s very difficult to document because people are reluctant to speak about it in many circumstances. They don’t self-report. It’s not always covered. So we’ve made more of an effort to document sexual assault, but we don’t have comprehensive, comparative statistics.

LP:      And what was it that made you launch the project and start making more of an effort? When would you say that happened?

JS:       There was a lot of awareness around this following the attacks against journalists in Tahrir Square and the systematic harassment of female journalists covering those events. More journalists came forward and began talking about this. And of course, sexualized violence predominantly affects women, but it also affects men. We found both men and women speaking out about this and talking about their experience. That really created a period of awareness and reflection. That is when we made that commitment to do a better job of documenting these kinds of violations.

LP:      What would you say is the top ethical concern right now when it comes to war reporting? What is the most current ethical question you’re trying to answer?

JS:       I think whenever you ask these questions, it’s really important that you define the scope. What do you mean by war reporting? Are we talking about what is the ethical debate that’s happening in the Afghan media or are you talking about the BBC? Or are you talking about Mexican news organizations covering the drug war? Or are you talking about Syria and international news organizations and the way they cover that? Major international news organizations have a whole series of ethical obligations. I would say the greatest challenge that they’re facing now, when it comes to these kinds of issues, I think there are two challenges: One is the relationship with freelancers. And the second is the duty of care for staff who are facing—and this applies to freelancers—extraordinary risk, particularly the risk of kidnapping or the vulnerability to psychological injury, like post-traumatic stress. How do you care for the people you employ who are exposed to those kinds of risks? So it’s their relationship with freelancers and it’s the full range of duty of care for your people.

[Featured image credit: Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons]

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