As many major news organisations close foreign bureaus, freelancers are called on more and more to cover global conflicts. They face risks often without the structure, training and resources that come with having a large media outlet behind you.
Continuing a conversation that began at the end of October in New York at the Overseas Press Club of America (OPC), Vaughan Smith, founder of the Frontline Club, spoke with leading editors at the club in London on Tuesday 18 November. They discussed the importance of pay to reflect risk, training, and new ways of determining how much responsibility for freelancers news outlets should take on.
Joining Smith were David Williams, deputy global news editor at Agence France-Presse (AFP); Marcus Mabry, editor at large for The New York Times and president of the Overseas Press Club of America (OPC); Ben De Pear, editor of Channel 4 News; and Emma Beals, a multimedia independent journalist covering Syria and Iraq and member of the board at the Frontline Freelance Register (FFR).
How freelancers are folded in to media organisations vary from outlet to outlet, so what should best practice look like?
“There’s an inverse relationship between the amount of control and the amount of responsibility they should take on for that person,” Beals said of the freelancer–editor relationship.
“We commission people in a very clear way. They have to take a hostile environment awareness course. We have to know them,” said De Pear. “Do you trust this person, are they trained, will this person deliver something we will put on television?” he said are important questions they ask, adding, “the Arab Spring was a bit of a nightmare. Libya was a fantasy war zone. Anyone who had a camera flew in.”
“I think the future is more to incorporate regular freelancers into our structures,” said Williams, pointing out that they made a tough decision after two of AFP’s top editors met with freelancers on the Turkish–Syrian border in 2012. “We will not accept production from freelancers where we don’t dare to venture ourselves,” he said, “we don’t want to encourage freelancers to take risks that our own journalists won’t take.”
Better Pay = Safety
Marginal wages for a story from a conflict zone don’t allow freelancers to invest in much needed training and equipment, argued Beals and many from the audience.
“You have to pay them more than $300 for 1,000 words in Syria,” she said. “It’s a professional work force with unprofessionalised wages. The pay is about safety,” Beals added, noting a recent story had her covering her expenses, which were twice the rate she was getting paid, up front with a promise of reimbursement months later.
Treating freelancers like a member of the AFP team under a new approach, said Williams, means they have more financial backup. “We bring them into the same structure that an AFP reporter would have. Generally they should have the same benefits.”
Smith said he is astounded by the number of freelancers he meets who have not been on a hostile environment training course. “We did a survey of freelancers at FFR,” he said, “a third said they thought that the editors they dealt with didn’t give a fig about their safety.”
The post originally appeared at The Frontline Club.