Op-Ed
Opinion

The dangerous world of freelance journalism

What did James Foley and Steven Sotloff have in common? They were both freelancers

James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the two journalists recently beheaded on video by members of the militant group Islamic State, had a number of things in common. They both cared deeply about the Middle East and believed that stories from the region needed telling. They were intelligent and brave. And they were both freelancers.

Reporting on the world has become far more dangerous for journalists in recent years, in part because so many more of us are freelance. And freelancers, including those on regular “stringing” contracts, almost never have the same support that staffers do. They don't have the security guards, safe housing, well-paid fixers and expert logistical help from their institutions, and those things can make all the difference.

Some wonderful organizations have sprung up to try to help, but there's only so much they can do. I met Foley, for example, in a training program known as Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, which was established to teach independent journalists how to handle life-threatening emergencies.

I've now been to three of these kinds of trainings, and I hate every moment of them. They are full of simulation drills that involve kidnapping, blindfolds and profanity, knife-wielding actors with gruesome injuries, staged car accidents, suicide bombers, smoke bombs, an immense sound system and fake blood. Lots of fake blood.

The impetus for RISC — offered free of charge — came directly from the heart of writer Sebastian Junger, in response to the death of his close friend Tim Hetherington, who was hit by shrapnel while documenting the conflict in Libya. Hetherington bled to death as his colleagues tried to get him to a hospital. None had been trained in tourniquets and pressure points.

I have taken each course as an opportunity to drill those skills into my muscle memory, in the desperate hope that if I am ever required to respond in the field, calm, cool reason and physical reflex will kick in.

Even though I greatly respect the kind of reporting Foley and Sotloff did, I turn down assignments that might put me near flying bullets. I cover global health issues.

But the fact is that covering the world's critical issues and problems means going to dangerous places, whether covering health or war. And when you're thousands of miles from the culture you know best, small misunderstandings have the potential to escalate into perilous situations quickly.

Several years ago, for example, while I was reporting on a cholera outbreak near my then-base in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a group of stone-wielding villagers tried to drag me and my motorcycle driver away because they thought we were deliberately bringing the infection to them. The man who negotiated our freedom was himself beaten, robbed, stripped and nearly killed.

But who would have had my back if I had been kidnapped?

The reason magazines, newspapers and broadcast outlets rely on freelancers is that it's cheaper. And it's cheaper because they don't have the same obligation to independent reporters that they would to their own staffs. It's time for more of us to start saying no to bad terms.

Two weeks ago I was offered an assignment by a well-respected news organization to cover the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. We met to discuss story shapes, a timeline and a plan for how to avoid contamination. At the end of the meeting I asked about an emergency medical evacuation protocol, just in case we reached that terrible moment. “We can't put anything in writing,” was the response from the editor. “Our company policy doesn't cover freelancers.” I turned down the assignment.

I often wonder if what I'm doing is worth the risk and the stress it causes my family. But then I imagine what it would be like if there were no journalists reporting on, say, Ebola — no trusted news sources explaining the reach of the disease and its effects on communities. Lack of information can lead to paranoia, anger and, ultimately, in the case of a disease such as Ebola, to a worse epidemic.

To date, two of my RISC classmates have died in the course of journalistic assignments they took on as freelancers. In both cases, the publications tried to do right by them after trouble struck. In the case of writer Matthew Power, who collapsed and died in Uganda, Men's Journal paid for the expenses related to his death and for the repatriation of his remains when the travel insurance he had taken out on his own turned out to have a typo that invalidated his coverage.

When Foley went missing, Global Post initiated a multimillion-dollar search for him, personally supervised by company Chief Executive Philip Balboni. But they didn't have to. Both journalists were working without pre-travel agreements that spelled out emergency or medical support.

If news outlets want in-depth stories from the world's trouble spots, and if they are going to continue outsourcing the reporting for those stories, they need to start talking to their lawyers and insurance companies to extend the liability umbrella. They need to make sure that the journalists they rely on have medical coverage while abroad, and that they fill the gaps — covering them for medical evacuation if necessary. And they need to do everything they can to ensure journalists' safety in advance of trouble.

Media outlets need to treat the safety of freelancers as they would the safety of their staff members. Because increasingly, we're all they've got.

Allison Shelley is an independent documentary photographer and multimedia journalist who covers global health and social justice issues worldwide.

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