Fixers & Stringers: Why should you care?
Mass media provide full coverage of conflicts worldwide. However, little is knownabout the locals working behind the scenes assisting foreign media. The EU-funded Fixers and Stringers project investigates forms of precarity experienced and emotional labour performed by mainly fixers and stringers working for foreign media in two conflict zones, Israel/Palestine and Ukraine. The research is based on in-depth interviews with fixers, stringers, and foreign correspondents. Its goal is to raise awareness of these media workers’ precarity and emotional labour and to contribute to more ethical global journalism.
Who are fixers?
Fixers – or, local producers – are most often local journalists or students who help foreign correspondents to report from crises such as conflict zones, natural disasters, or terrorist attacks. Fixers, the journalists’ eyes and ears, manage logistics, guide foreign crews, interpret during interviews, and also select interviewees, arrange interviews, research stories, and even protect the foreign reporters using their networks. These local collaborators are thus not only logisticians or producers but also editors and cultural translators.
Fixers, or local producers, are the journalists’ eyes and ears. They are important cultural translators.
What inequalities do they face?
Fixers are at home in conflict zones. They face intimidation, death threats, can be targeted as spies, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
Despite their increasingly crucial role, fixers remain largely invisible to the audiences and overlooked by the news industry. They are among the most precarious and insecure actors in conflict reporting. They often go to the front line and other places deemed too dangerous for foreigners, gather rough material and information, and bring them to the foreign reporters staying in protected areas. Unlike their foreign colleagues who can leave the conflict at any moment, fixers can face intimidation, cyberbullying, and death threats. They can be followed by local intelligence agencies, targeted as spies, imprisoned, forced into exile, tortured, and killed (see for example Lindsay Palmer’s book).
Media companies usually take much better care of their skeleton staff than of these local freelancers. The latter often work without proper insurance, flak jackets, or security training. Fixers rarely get a byline or an acknowledgment in print; they are seen as a tool of “the story” that is possessed by the foreign correspondents. Fixers are also paid much less than staff reporters. Their job is mostly short-term and erratic, they are juggling assignments and they are only as good as their last gig.
Victims and exploiters?
These inequalities stem from the post-colonial bias of the dominant West towards the colonized East and the fixers’ less privileged national and ethnic identities. But academics studying global newsgathering work with the Western/non-Western division too, thus accepting the hierarchical construction of the West/Global North and East/Global South without questioning it.
In reality, the power dynamic in the relationship between locals and foreign correspondents is much more complex, messy, and constantly negotiated in everyday situations. Fixers do exercise power over news content, albeit in a hidden way: most information that the foreign reporters receive passes through fixers, who thus translate between cultures and control reporters’ field of perception. Fixers also often criticize foreign reporters’ ignorance, bias, and naivety, and at times try to correct them. The job of juggling gigs can actually allow fixers to enjoy both international cooperation and work for local audiences. Moreover, they are often skilled entrepreneurs, start their own companies, or offer their services via various Facebook groups or websites such as World Fixer. As for security, it is surprisingly not a major concern for fixers or journalists. On the contrary: fixers believe that they should use their local know-how to protect the foreign correspondents.
Fixers believe that they should use their local know-how to protect the foreign correspondents.
Let’s think post-exotic
Fixers’ culture is not strange, foreign, exotic, or static. They are not defined solely by their nationality and ethnicity. Instead, their fluid identities reflect the interplay of the cultural, ethnic, religious, national, gender, sexual, and political. Contemporary foreign reporters do not fit into the age-old colonial stereotypes and the global dominance paradigm, either. They are multinational, multiethnic, and multilingual. Sure, we should keep in mind the inequalities that persist and push media organizations to care equally for all newsworkers, regardless of their origin. Yet, recognizing this duty to take care of fixers should be based not on dichotomies but empathy, respect for their work, equity, and dialogue. Media companies, journalists, and also scholars need to ask fixers: What do ethics, equality, and justice mean for you, and how can they be achieved? For if global newsgathering is to be more ethical, we first need to agree on the currency of ethics and justice.