The outsourcing of risk: beyond the myth of the war correspondent

The myth of the brave war correspondent neglects fixers: locals who help foreign correspondents to make news. But without them, informing from conflict zones is inconceivable – now more than ever before.

The popular image of the war reporter – often based on real-life stories, such as the movie A Private War or the book War Reporter is limited to white European or US nationals with piercing, intelligent eyes that mirror everything they have seen. They always smoke. They mostly wear comfortable washed-out beige clothes; occasionally, these outfits give way to looks that better correspond to the objectivization and sexualization of female war reporters, as in the movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. They are cynical, tough, a little debauched, promiscuous, and foul-mouthed. Their humour is gallows. They smell of dust and sweat – even on a screen. But you will forgive them everything because they risk their lives to bring you the truth. Their mission is to transport the experience of the eyewitness to the “First World”. On the way, they never betray their moral principles, they show courage and have an open mind while, incidentally, liberating local civilians from the clutches of local authorities and other villains.

As with any media imagery, there is some truth in the myth. However, it overshadows some crucial parts of the reality of conflict reporting. One is that – because of shrinking media budgets, the general degradation of the security situation for journalists globally, and the growing reliance on parachute reporting – global newsgathering increasingly depends on fixers. Fixers 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 but also editors and cultural translators.

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 contexts 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, be followed by local intelligence agencies, targeted as spies, imprisoned, forced into exile, tortured, and killed (see for example Lindsay Palmer’s book). Big media companies 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 – which is probably also why most newsworkers killed in conflict zones are locals.

Conflict reporting is now at a turning point. Since the outbreak of the global Covid-19 pandemic, fixers have become even more important, often reporting from the conflict zones directly and becoming de facto journalists. On one hand, these fixers-journalists now enjoy more autonomy and recognition. On the other hand, the outsourcing of risks by big media companies to locals is unprecedented. To catch up to reality, media scholars need to learn much more about how the current trends in the industry, and also the global pandemic, have changed fixers’ and foreign reporters’ work and lives.

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