Protecting the messenger

The barbaric and tragic deaths of American freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and now UK aid worker, David Haines by IS militants has catalyzed public outcry to better protect innocent workers on the frontline in Syria.

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The be-headings Foley, Sotloff and  Haines have generated diverse discussion in the  Twitosphere.

Wanting to persue a career in international journalism, I looked into how freelance journalists are protected in overseas conflict zones.

Significant redundancies made in recent times across foreign bureaus around the world have seen freelancers attempt to fill the gap in international reporting. A survey by the American Journalism Review of 10 major newspapers and one chain found that between 2003 and 2011 the number of foreign correspondents dropped from 307 to 234.

Some news agencies, like The Guardian avoid buying work from freelancers all together as to not “encourage freelancers to take exceptional risks.” A solution that works for The Guardian, not so much for freelancers.

The deaths of Foley and Sotloff have exposed a dangerous culture of news reporting that has manifested over the last decade. In an article for CBS, Frank Smyth the director of Global Journalist Security explains the culture of less experienced journalists hungry to be published are reporting from hostile regions and demanding less from budget-conscious news outlets is a very real one.

“These aspiring freelancers just want to get published … so they can’t go to the outlet and say, ‘I want you to publish me and I want equipment, insurance, and training.’ The outlets will go to someone else.” Smyth said.

Smyth reveals the harsh reality that freelancers often must pay for their own war-zone insurance without any help from news agencies purchasing their stories. Clearly a policy that doesn’t come cheap, war zone insurance covers a variety of needs for a freelance journalist including emergency evacuation and treatment at foreign hospitals.

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It is essential freelancers and staff reporters are equally protected in conflict zones.

“I think it’s unethical to take [work] from freelancers in these places if you’re not sharing in the risk.” Smyth said.

Smyth has hit the nail on the head here.  A strong place to start in better protecting freelance journalists in conflict zones is within the bureaucracy of the news agencies and their current codes of ethics. Stephen A.J Ward, an internationally recognised media ethicist  that today’s codes of ethics in different news agencies are inconsistently applied in practice.

“Journalism ethics needs to the stand behind principles and not retreat to a process that, like a smorgasbord, allows everyone to choose what values they like”, Ward said.

In an increasingly cash strapped journalism industry, it is paramount news agencies uphold strong journalism ethics and provide sufficient duty of care for its journalists in conflict zones. As a readership, we demand news 24 hours a day seven days a week. It’s only right and fair that we advocate to help protect those journalists who take exceptional risks to bring us news from these dangerous regions.