On Sunday, March 29, the Pulitzer Center and American University co-sponsored a panel discussion on the dangers facing freelance journalists working in hostile environments—an issue of growing concern at a time of heightened attacks on journalists and diminished resources at many leading news outlets.
The first panel, moderated by Bill Gentile of American University, included three freelance journalists who have received funding support from the Pulitzer Center: Jason Motlagh, Allison Shelley and Michael Scott Moore. The second panel, moderated by Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer, featured Hannah Allam of McClatchy Newspapers; Frank Smyth, a security adviser for the Committee to Protect Journalists; and David Rohde of Thompson Reuters. Rohde has participated in recent discussions—as has CPJ, the Pulitzer Center and other news organizations—on guidelines for freelancers and news organizations aimed at assuring the safety of freelancers and local journalists in high-risk environments. A copy of the guidelines, and a list of current signatories, can be found here.
What are the responsibilities of freelancers—and of the news outlets that use their work? What can be done to improve the abysmally low pay rates for freelancers that have become routine? What is the role of non-profit organizations such as the Pulitzer Center?
The following is an edited transcript from a lively and important discussion. Many thanks to Bill Gentile and his colleagues at American University for making this possible.
Panel 1: Freelancers on the Frontlines
Michael Scott Moore
(Moderator: Bill Gentile)
(Editor's note: Michael Scott Moore was kidnapped in January 2012 near the town of Galkacyo, capital of the Galmudug region of central Somalia, and held for 32 months. A former contract editor for der Spiegel in Berlin, he holds dual German-American citizenship and is the author of "Sweetness and Blood.")
Michael Scott Moore: Right after I was kidnapped, two Westerners who had been held in the same area were rescued by American Seals. And that kept the ransom rate at about $20 million, for the pirates, it was about $20 million for quite a long time. I was held in the bush; on a ship for several months, and then a series of several houses in the town of Galkacyo, which is the town in which I was captured.
It was a slightly complicated case because I am also German. So two governments got involved. At the end my ransom was paid and I walked free, in September of last year, and shortly after that, four of the bosses in that case, four of the ranking numbers, died in a shootout in the same town, in Galkacyo, which is to say they didn't feel they got enough, they argued over how to split it, and they killed each other in the process.
Allison Shelley, freelance photographer: I worked for 13 years as a staff photographer for various newspapers in this area, and did mostly local stories, some international stories. The very last day of 2009, we had a big layoff, laid off all 9 photographers, so I instantly became a freelancer along with some other very talented colleagues of mine and decided there was no way I could compete with them, so I decided to start telling the stories I had always wanted to tell and started working on what I do now, which is international stories about women's maternal health issues and how that intersects with human rights, culture, religion, and how those things all effect each other.
I recently heard a statistic that I thought was very interesting and very relevant here: Before 2001, before 9/11, most injuries and fatalities to overseas journalists [related to] car accidents. I think that says a lot because we think of the life of a photojournalist, getting kidnapped is a scary, real fear, conflict, you can get shot, etc. But so many other things can happen. I don't think I was quite prepared for that in the beginning, that there are some very real dangers facing us in nearly every day of our work. A lot of it happens to be in post-conflict nations, or post-disaster situations, or places with simply poor infrastructure. And there are a lot of inherent risks there, just being in another culture that you may not understand all of the cultural nuances, it inherently puts a person at risk.
Jason Motlagh, freelancer: I have been freelancing now for about 8 years and I have to say I would have loved to have seen something like this, that we would have been able to come to something like this early on. I started freelancing at a time when it was very tenuous, resources withering away. Just after college, I didn't have any full training, was determined to give it a go, so I got this internship and took off for Africa...covering a commercial fisherman. I didn't really have a lot of guidance; I was here in Washington and respected journalists were at the table, but none of them could really speak to me about the reality of what I was stepping into. They were working overtime with outlandish expense accounts, spare no expense. What I was doing was a little more diverse, going out and reporting stories but also exploring digital media and really having a broader range of skills. You couldn't come to a place like this. I sort of pieced it together on my own, and realized it was a necessity.
The more I worked, the more I (understood the) need to make a living. I couldn't just be a freelance correspondent and hope to take pictures. I had to learn video and other skills in order to be viable. We take it for granted now, coming into a school like this where you have a Swiss army knife of skills. I always had a sense that I was going to cover conflict—like any young guy, attracted to that sense of adventure, curiosity, something I kind of had to prove to myself.
I developed a certain comfort, confidence, building relationships with news outlets. Back then, communications, opportunities were flooding my inbox. 'When can you fly in? etc.'... It can feel pretty lonely out there, but I was very resolved that this is what I wanted to do, and kept going, I came back and briefly took a staff job as an editor, working for a paycheck and was quickly very bored and envious of the people finding these stories. And I thought, "never again," and I've been working as a freelancer ever since in all sorts of different arrangements. I eventually made my way to Afghanistan—that's the defining story of my career so far. Initially, 2007, a sideshow to Iraq, I can get around here and look for some stories that no one is really working on; that of course changed when everyone migrated over from Baghdad. I felt like it was workable. I had been doing other things like taking pictures and producing some video.
I also had really monumental support from the Pulitzer Center, I'd say that was the closest thing I had to mentorship and support, people who believed in telling these under-reported stories that I felt very strongly about. They've been stalwart supporters. That's really been a big boost for me and I've enjoyed that and it's something that I think all freelance journalists hope for, that kind of guidance and fallback. I spent several years in Afghanistan, I was a correspondent for TIME for a while, on retainer basically, making pretty good money...so that was a good stint for me, but at the same time, it was still very tenuous as far as what would happen when things went wrong for me. I thought no, I've transitioned, left the conflict for a while. Took some time out to get some things straight in my life and have since formed an independent film company where we are doing fewer projects, but working on a range of platforms, short and long documentaries. I still do some news reporting but most of the work I do is for magazines and some things I assign myself to do. It's a different paradigm for me, but I have maintained my independence throughout. Something I'm very keen to do, especially at this juncture, these stories, organizations don't have the resources necessarily to do. I'm glad we can all be here to help talk more about this.
I think now we have more support, can count on editors, etc. Superimposing my time several years ago when I was first starting out, it was very isolating going into a place not having a soft landing, with a fixer and immediate support. You have to try to figure it out as you go, the hard way. ... To be in the line of freelancers, its very cutthroat work. It's not to say we don't support each other, but we are always trying to compete for the same news outlets.
Bill Gentile: Both you and Michael mention these things called fixers. The fixers are local hires that we go to, depend on, heavily, they know the culture, they know the language, they have the contacts, brothers and sisters in the government, we need these guys and women extensively, because they are many times our lifelines because these folks, they're the least protected, most vulnerable, and sadly the most quickly forgotten when we pack our bags and go.
AS: You do that before you go anywhere, before you get your ticket ... I always try to get connections to a local journalist who will introduce me to people, and that's going to be the most important thing. It is important to get into that community, to network, you're more likely to be protected if you build that network. That has been the most valuable insight that I have had in doing this. What any young journalist should be thinking about, that's one way you can protect yourself.
MSM: I did months of research too before I left. One of the first things I did, when I became interested in piracy...was I made an advance run to Nairobi and made friends with these journalists. I traveled to Galkacyo with Ashwin Raman, an extremely experienced documentary-maker, close to retirement. He had done documentaries for German TV but was in business for himself. We had both started out on staff but by the time we were in Somalia we were both freelancers. The preparation was important but it's possible that it gave me the illusion of knowing where we were. I had experienced people with me and I relied on them, and in some sense, I relied on them maybe too much. I had my own instincts and got this from what I studied, but in the end I left the security to the more experienced guys. In the end, I had my own red lines—and a couple of them were crossed.
BG: I've heard the argument that the pirates have been pushed into a corner of economic necessity—that this is their only way to survive because of overfishing and because of illegal ships that come into Somalia waters, beaches. That they are left with no recourse but to pirate?
MSM: Absolute nonsense. It's a cliché that pirates are frustrated fishermen that have turned to trying to hijack ships. Most of the pirates I met were land-based militiamen. What is important for a pirate is the skills with the gun, not skills with the boat. Any man with a skiff only needs one man to drive the boat. It's a legitimate social problem, the overfishing, but it is not what the pirates themselves suffer from. The main motivation from what I saw for any of these guys to be pirates was their addiction to khat.
BG: Jason, why keep going back?
JM: Sometimes covering pot smokers in Oakland can get a little boring. There is the excitement of covering conflict. You know it's there. That is something I have particularly tried to be self-aware of, my deepest motivations in taking on a given assignment: Why am I ignoring that, or don't try to fool yourself about this one? That is ok, we can all be honest about that. Also, because I think there are important stories, a lot of what you see in mainstream media sometimes for all the wonderful things they do, sometimes stories aren't being explored in the complexity they deserve.
Sometimes you need to be able to spend two months on a given issue. Last year with a Pulitzer Center grant, I went to Bangladesh, and did a lot of great reporting on the systemic problems and what is happening with workers and consumers... But to really go back and tie it all together and show how these systems interact, and the role that we had there was something that was going to take real money and time to pull off. Fortunately we were able to get a grant.
BG: Allison, what keeps you going back?
AS: I think my motivations are similar. It was inspiring and adventurous. When you get to a place you have never been, you have fresh eyes and everything stands out to you. These things were making me angry—like seeing young girls in India pregnant by age 14, having three-day labor and not having the good kind of medical care they needed. I had not seen that story before. I think for me, it was important to tell that story, and nobody wanted to publish it. I was saying "these are really hard stories to publish," and now I understand why there aren't many stories like that out there, so I personally felt my mission was to try to be creative about the way I get into these stories and tell them in a way that I think audiences can connect to and the editors will want to put out there. Because the nitty gritty of why and all the web of cultural stuff that goes along with the reasons that these women are not being taken care of... so that the challenge is how to do it.
BG: I'm sure there are some questions in the audience?.
Q1: How do freelance journalists make enough money to pay their bills?
AS: Well, I shot a wedding yesterday. (laughter) I think the Pulitzer Center has helped all of us pay our bills.
JM: I've dabbled with the dark side, with TV, and I've enjoyed it. I have responsibilities, a family, live in the Bay Area and it's not the cheapest place. It's always a hustle for me. I'd love to do more writing, I've sort of made a resolution for myself this year to pursue more long-term writing, but for the most part I get those assignments where I can get a commission for a film and then piggybacking on that. It's hard to map things out to far ahead.
Q2: How much do you spend researching the places you report from, aside from finding the sources and the fixer?
AS: I spend a lot of time looking at those things and I definitely always try to get the right immunizations, malaria pills. You try to mitigate the risk as wisely as you can. When I travel anywhere for assignments, I always get travel health insurance. The Pulitzer Center provides it as a matter of course for all their journalists—it's like $10 a day. If you are injured in a foreign country and you need medical evacuation, that's sometimes the only way you can get that.
JM: I've had malaria twice, so I'm definitely more aware of that. I've been really fortunate in both cases. It's give and take, there's a lot of faith in people on the ground, getting in touch with journalists who have just gotten back from a place and feel like they were fresh out of the field, give you up to date information. What's true today is not true tomorrow. I was in Iraq last year and I went down to the Kurdish region and Turkey, went to report in conflict areas where Kurdish forces were (fighting the) advance of ISIS militants, they evicted 50,000 people. Two weeks later the place was overrun. These things are still fickle sometimes.
Jon Sawyer: I want to come back to Michael Moore and your experience of being held hostage. Mike has a piece in Politico magazine on the U.S. no-ransom policy versus the different policy that some European governments have had. You can find it on our site or you can find it at Politico. If you can just share a bit more of your sense as to lessons learned. I don't know how many times in the course of those months, your mom or us or the FBI, the question we had then was if only we could hear from Mike what would he have us to do? So you are in a unique position to share some of that.
MSM: After a few months...after a certain point, a hostage just doesn't care. The risk of a rescue mission doesn't matter anymore. At some point I managed to say that on the phone. I just put out a message and hoped the government heard. Once I got the idea of how negotiations were going, I got really frustrated, because I knew that the family doesn't know, the authorities don't know, what the hostage is thinking necessarily, so you want to tip your hand without blurting it, to indicate what you want But then again, the hostage doesn't always know. In other words, the hostage doesn't know how far along the negotiations are and he isn't in the position to say which one is better. So it tends to be the authorities who have a good overview but they need to hear from a hostage how well he's doing, whether he or she is sick.
Q5: Do you feel that ransom money incentivizes the pirates to kidnap more people?
MSM: Of course it does, every ransom does, there's no question. The question though—and this question comes up a lot—is whether the U.S. policy, that we do not talk to the kidnappers at all, whether this helps disincentivize them. In other words, the fact that the U.S. government doesn't even talk to kidnappers, does that actually keep ransoms of Americans down? From my point of view the answer is no. I think anyone who believes that ... If you believe that, you have to believe that people who want to kidnap are thinking about the difference in policy between the U.S. and France or England and France. My kidnappers didn't know the geographical difference. It doesn't matter how many times an official goes on TV and says we don't pay out ransoms. Who cares? The pirates don't care. The only thing that will disincentivize kidnappers is violence. That's the way clear messages go out.
Q6: Why do you think those stories should be told and should be on the front page? Why are they so difficult to pitch? Why don't editors line up to take these stories?
AS: I think because they are not sexy and glamorous. They have to do with policy and stuff that is embedded in the way we live that's not that exciting somehow. I still believe there is a way, if the story has a core that you can get the message across, there are editors that will do this stuff. That is why we all do this. There are certainly still places that will publish. But if it doesn't fit into a news cycle, it isn't easy, if you can't sum it up in three sentences. I think there are starting to be some new media out there that do care about these things. I think I'm hoping that this will be something that will take off. I don't think it's ever going to be mainstream. International pages were never the pages that sold a newspaper. It's not mainstream.
JM: You just have to build those relationships, and invest in yourself. When I first started out, with my one-way ticket to Africa, before I went I got a list of editors, made cold calls and most of them didn't reply. Then I was in a very remote country when a coup happened. I didn't have a choice but to cover it. It was a big shot for my confidence and I was able to film there and all of a sudden I was getting responses. I made an educated bet on myself, that if you want to break into freelancing you have to just go, don't sit and wait. If you sit and wait you will just keep waiting. But have a plan, have a good plan when you go. Without being too hard on yourself, reaching out, cultivating relationships with locals, journalists, correspondents.
Jon Sawyer: Jason, on that point, before we gave Jason 8 or 9 grants, we turned up down 5 times.
JM: Twice actually
JS: Multiple times
AS: And that's something you have to get used to. It's really hard. I can pitch five different stories to an editor before she says yes.
JM: Rejection is the constant in this work. You've got to have thick skin, to be rejected every single day, you just keep coming back. The percentages will go up.
Frank Smyth: Michael, when you were being held, there was an acrimonious debate as to whether Spiegel was doing enough for you—and whether or not they were imposing a news blackout that was working against you?
MSM: First of all, there should be a little background about that. They certainly couldn't defend themselves, they were trying to keep the intended news blackout. They were absolutely terrific. The blackout didn't shorten the time I was held but it wasn't Spiegel-imposed, and it was not government imposed. If a blackout is government-imposed then I think that's wrong. But everyone left it up to my mother and she revisited that decision many times. It was agonizing for her, too. My family first said let's keep quiet, that sounds good. When negotiations broke down she wanted to tell everybody. In the end the decisions were always hers and I'm glad people respected that.
The only insight I have about whether publicity hurts or harms a hostage case is the fact that my guards were extremely interested every time we did a video, in whether I was going to be mentioned on the BBC. They wanted a celebrity hostage because they felt that would get more money for me. I don't know if that's true; it probably is.
Panel 2: What Outlets Need to Do to Protect Freelancers Overseas
David Rohde, Thompson Reuters
Hannah Allam, McClatchy
Frank Smyth, Global Journalist Security, Committee to Protect Journalists
(Editor's note: David Rohde was reporting for The New York Times in 2008 when he was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was held for seven months before escaping and later co-wrote a book on the experience, "A Rope and a Prayer," with his wife, Kristen Mulvihill. In recent months he has helped organize discussions that led to the release of guidelines for freelancers with the endorsement of several dozen news organizations.)
David Rhode: We're thrilled that some of the biggest news organizations in the world have signed on: AFP, AP, Bloomberg, BBC, and Reuters. What surprised us is in the last few weeks, we've gotten groups from Iraq, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, and Albania that have had the courage to say that there should be standards. I'm happy to answer questions but it is essentially basic guidelines: Seven things that freelancers pledge to try to do, and seven things news organizations try to do as sort of rules of the road. And these are guidelines, not mandatory. A big part of this agreement was the support of the newswires, the bigger agencies, and something called the Frontline Freelance Registry, a London-based group that represents about 500 freelancers who cover conflict. And it was really a negotiation between the newswires and the Freelance Registry that brought these together.
The freelancers' seven-part pledge is very much part of a code of conduct that the Frontline Freelance Registry promotes for its own members. There is recognition from both sides that it's dangerous, and everyone needs to work together better, and everyone needs to professionalize. So freelancers pledge to have basic skills when they go into a conflict zone to take care of themselves and their colleagues. They promise to take basic first aid, to help save the lives of themselves and their colleagues. Basic hazardous environment training and proper equipment in terms of vest and helmet, and there are other things that they pledge to do.
News organizations critically need to try to have a conversation with the freelancer beforehand about what their pay-rate is going to be, what expenses will be covered, and what their insurance coverage will be if things go wrong. If things do go wrong, if a freelancer is abducted or injured, there is a line that says the news organization has a moral obligation to help that freelancer. They should try to treat the freelancers they work with as they would a staff member. There is a line that when possible, the news organization will pay expenses beforehand. Many freelancers talk about low pay, and if you're working alone in Cairo and you have a driver and things get dicey, you're a lot better off getting the advice of your driver than trying to flag down a taxi. If you're just landing in an airport and you're trying to find a fixer, you're much better off if you can pay more money. The best and most skilled fixers are going to go to the person that has resources. Lastly, an organization called RISC, founded by Sebastian Junger, offers first aid training. The death of his friend and colleague [photographer] Tim Hetherington might have been prevented in Libya if people who were with him at the time had known how to slow the bleeding from the wound that Hetherington bled to death from. RISC stands for Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues.
Just in the last few weeks, RISC has proposed minimum pay-rates that should go to freelancers. I have no idea who will adopt this, but they're calling for a minimum of $1.50 per word for freelance articles, whether they run online or in magazines since there in a big discrepancy there, and then for photographers a minimum pay rate of $400 per day. Freelancers complain about certain digital operations being "too cool to pay." It's a real issue—because there is a relationship between pay and safety. In the end this is all about resources. For news organizations money is tight. And editors are sincerely worried about this. Every (major) news organization has now had a death or captivity or serious illness to contend with. They're not just cold or hard-hearted; they are worried as well and trying to find responsible and effective freelancers who get the story in the field, and we all need to work together to really create safety.
We'll have an event on this topic at the National Press Club on April 23rd; we'll try to get more signatories. One of the long-term goals is to try to create a network of non-profit groups that would offer different resources to freelancers. Frank's group, Global Journalist Security, could maybe get some kind of funding from foundations to offer free or subsidized training for freelancers. RISC could offer first-aid training. RWB (Reporters Without Borders) offers great medical insurance. The Pulitzer Center is involved. The Dart Center has been a key part at Columbia University on these issues and could offer psychological support. So the idea is to work together and create a network that really helps freelancers get these stories out in a time of really unprecedented danger.
Jon Sawyer: So if we can turn to Frank, who has dealt with these issues for many years. At the Committee to Protect Journalists and also as a journalist himself in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, and now head of your own organization, Global Journalist Security. You stress training, not just first aid and hostile environment but also cyber security, the protection of sources, and similar themes. Tell us what you've learned, and what you see as the biggest gaps going forward.
Frank Smyth: For freelancers, things have changed in a number of ways. There are increasing risks, especially with 9/11, the Iraq War and Arab Spring. We're seeing things we've never seen before in the Middle East and also in Mexico. We're seeing a level and caliber of violence against journalists that we've never seen before in Latin America and I think that's something to keep in mind. We are seeing that there are more outlets that will take your material now than before. But we're finding there are much fewer outlets that will actually pay a living wage and I think this is a problem. The other thing to keep in mind is there is one issue that freelance and international journalists and fixers working for international media, and that is the issue of local journalists reporting on issues relevant to their own community or nations who are being killed. Both of these rates have gone up since CPJ has been keeping track since about 1980, and the risk for international journalists has gone up tremendously, and the risk to local journalists has gone up marginally, but those risks have always been high. And I point this out because they are the once most at risk, but we also need to keep in mind that the remedies are the same.
The problem local journalists face is one of rule of law. People get murdered with impunity in the great many parts of the world. Journalists get murdered with impunity once every two weeks. And the killers get away with it in 90 percent of those cases. Now in those same nations, a lot of people get murdered with impunity, so it's not just a problem of murdering journalists, it's the ability to murder almost anybody and get away with it. It's a bigger problem and a more long-term problem than what we're dealing with with journalists.
But in terms of international journalists, journalists need support to be able to pay for these trainings and obtain insurance and body armor if they need it, but insurance is most important. I'm not talking about Medevac insurance. I've never heard of a case where that's actually been useful for journalists. Usually they are going to bleed to death or die before the helicopter could ever get there. It's about whether or not you get injured and you need long-term rehabilitative care once you're out of the conflict zone and back in the United States. You need surgery, you've got shrapnel. If you're working for a major news organization that will support you. If you're a freelancer, you may not have that support. And one of the alarming things is the number of freelance photojournalists who cover the most dangerous stories and continue to cover them without any kind of insurance whatsoever.
I think this is really a problem and gets at what David's talking about in terms of pay. The other thing is paying people a living wage; I think that's absolutely necessary. My organization is somewhere between a non-profit and a for-profit. Most of our clients are US-funded non-profit organizations, development, health, and education groups. We also have a number of journalistic clients and we regularly train freelancers. We are not competing with RISC, and some people have been in both courses and I think they're both quite complementary. The problem is, freelancers are not being paid enough or have the support to be able to afford this training. Many news organizations say "Well, we'd consider hiring you if you had training." How are you going to get training if you have to get it on your own? There is an organization in London called the Rory Peck Trust, which will provide up to about $1,200 toward training. Depending on the course, it can cover almost half of it, perhaps in some cases more than half. And then we also provide discounts to freelancers on a sliding scale based on need.
We need an independent entity similar to the Rory Peck Trust that can receive funds, raise funds and then have a list of approved providers that the journalist can then choose where to get the training. So it isn't geared toward any particular training provider, but it provides the support that allows the journalists themselves to decide. I think there is a need for that, and there are indications that there would be money available for that. I don't like seeing US government funds being involved in human rights monitoring or press freedom monitoring. We don't take money from the government, and neither do organizations like Human Rights Watch. But when it comes to training, I think the government could provide a role and they seem quite interested in trying to do something. So, setting up some kind of American grant organization to get freelancers some kind of training would be the first thing.
JS: I would be hesitant to have the government play a direct role in that kind of training, but it's certainly something for discussion. Also, Frank, the entity you just described is basically what the Pulitzer Center does. We raise money and we support journalists. We give out about $1.5 million in direct support for journalists every year. And when somebody is part of our network of journalists, we're open to discussion with them and the news organizations where their work will be placed to talk about these kinds of trainings, whether it's body armor or the insurance or anything else. I agree with you that this work needs to be through some sort of central clearinghouse.
We'll come back to that, but I want to turn now to Hannah Allam, who's seen this from multiple perspectives, in Baghdad and Cairo for McClatchy, working with local journalists and freelancers, and now in the DC office of McClatchy. How do you see standards such as the call for global safety guidelines we're discussing playing out within an individual news organization like McClatchy?
Hannah Allam: Sure. First, thank you everyone for this timely discussion. I would like to tell you a little bit about what the change looks like on the ground from the time I remember in 2003 as a 25- or 26-year-old bureau chief to now, when I've been in the position to hire freelancers and to weigh in on those decisions. Back to what seems like a simpler time, 2003, when we had the buildup to the Iraq war. The culture was no-expense-spared for safety. State-of-the-art body armor, chem-bio suits, camping equipment. It was like we were preparing for a zombie apocalypse. It was very over-the-top. I remember going to REI to buy iodine tablets to purify my water. I never used them once. So that was the culture of safety. We would never dream of sending anyone overseas if they hadn't done hostile environment courses that are very expensive. I mean, people who were coming to fill in for me as bureau chief for two weeks, 14 days, this would cost as much as the plane ticket if not more, and yet we would not send anyone until we did all that. I made it a policy that everyone in our Iraqi staff members also received hostile environment training, etc etc. And any freelancers that we hired as well. And we were by no means alone in this. Everyone was throwing tons and tons money into these security operations. So it bred a culture where we looked out for each other.
There were a number of freelancers in Baghdad that were professional, but you would also get the backpacker who did things like land at the Baghdad airport, at a time when the airport road was one of the most dangerous strips of land in the world. And they'd take a taxi and come to the hotel where we all stayed, and say "I took a cab just fine, guys." It was frustrating to feel that those coming in and out were jeopardizing the safety of those of us there long-term as freelance or staff. One of my colleagues said we needed to start something called Army of the Journalists and we'll go troll the airport road, and we're going to pick you up and teach you a lesson! Because you're jeopardizing our lives. So that was the sort of attention to safety of everyone around you.
Fast-forward to 2011, I'm in Cairo at this time. I don't have a set of body armor, my safety training is way out of date, and my best friend who was at the Washington Post—now she's at NPR, Leila Fadel—called me up and said "Let's try to go to Libya. I heard the whole east is falling, let's do it." We grabbed some guy who is a freelance fixer, an Egyptian who had smoked so much hash that day he didn't understand that we were going to cross into Libya, which for so long had been closed off and ruled by this crazy person. We didn't know a lot about it, a very traditional conservative and tribal society, and yet off we go, no body armor, nothing, not a care in the world. Maybe had a phone and some chargers. We got into a car with some gunmen because we'd been told the whole east was falling. And we got into a car with probably the last Gaddafi supporters in the east. So we learned a very very valuable lesson in that. These were the differences. This was from Washington Post and McClatchy. But we were released, and we would have that institutional support.
There were also a lot of freelancers in those days who didn't have the bare minimum. So it wasn't until I was safely back in Cairo and the Arab rebellions were down to three or four manageable conflicts from eight or nine, and I started thinking, "How are these same editors who were so vigilant about safety in 2003, how are they so careless now? How did we slip from those high, high standards of what to expect and how to value your people to telling us to be the first to cross the border and get what we can." I'm guilty of it myself, as a bureau chief. People wanted to know why I wasn't doing this, wasn't doing that. You know, "Why aren't you doing anything in Yemen?" So the next day, I opened my email and there is a guy, 24, writing from Yemen who said "I'm here studying English," and that was it, I said, "You're hired." Not a clip, no nothing. And I'm ashamed of it now. Although he's gone on to wonderful things and is now a Yemen expert on CNN, so it worked out. But did I know his blood type or much of anything about him? Who he was with on a daily basis? I was so busy in Libya and sneaking to Syria that I didn't check up on him. My editors in DC didn't. So I feel there has been this sort of breakdown across the industry. I don't think it's just for freelancers, but more pronounced for freelancers, but overall our safety standards have slipped to a really dangerous level so I think it's so important to have this protocol and to have this proliferation of non-profit groups that are helping journalists.
And there is also this dynamic now of covering the Middle East and Syria and Iraq in particular that there is almost a condescension, you know, "We're staff, we know best," which clearly wasn't right, looking at the decisions I made. I don't know, I think things have improved, but there is still a long way to go, and things like the protocol are a wonderful step. Who in the newsroom is going to be enforcing those? Because I can tell you this week, I would hire again in Yemen. Thank goodness that's not my decision anymore.
JS: But Hannah, if you hired again, if you did that in Yemen this week, are you saying that because McClatchy has signed these protocols, does that mean that the person you hire is going to have this same kind of coverage and protection that a staff journalist would have?
HA: Well, I'll say that McClatchy's track record is excellent on this, because unfortunately we have had an Iraqi staff member and very dear friend of mine and colleague who was killed by a US sniper in 2004. They compensated his family, they really took care of that to the extent that you can in such a horrendous turn of events. Same with staff members and freelancers who have been grabbed; they have been equipped with a tracking device, which is another good tool to know about, where in case someone grabs him, stuffs him in a trunk, then in London we can see the pings as he is being driven away. We can't do much about it, but at least it's something.
Now it's most pronounced in the case of Austin Tice, who was a freelance contributor for us and the Washington Post and other places and did some incredible work for us and has been missing for over two and a half years. So in that case, huge institutional support. I'd like to think that yes, we would, but I know that it's still imperfect and new. I honestly didn't know that we'd signed this protocol until I was preparing for the panel. So yes, I think there is a lot of work we can all still do.
JS: I want to turn back to David on the point you raised. I mean, we are barely absorbing what these guidelines mean and what it would take to put them into force, and now we're talking about the next stage, which is really the fundamental issue of payment of freelancers and paying at decent rates. I think the $1.50 a word you reference is like 5-10 times more than what most freelancers are getting paid for what they are doing now. And to Hannah's point, that things seem a little sloppier, quicker, at the editorial end, a lot of that is just the collapse of the economic commercial model of legacy media. They just don't have the resources. Where is the money going to come from? Can you simply browbeat news organizations into paying rates that they simply don't have any budget for?
DR: It's a good question. And we don't have these answers. As I mentioned, there is this event at the National Press Club on April 23rd. If you're interested in this issue, we're having a private dinner and session for planning, and what do we do with these guidelines, how do we get news organizations to engage and freelancers to abide? Anyone who wants to attend these events is welcome to talk to Chuck Lewis (at AU) or me about it. This is very much a work in progress, something that started out of a conversation I moderated among foreign editors organized by the AP managing editors and International Press Institute in Chicago back in September, and all of these foreign editors were trying to figure out how can I get the story I want without disaster striking. The simple lesson was, unfortunately, you have to do less. When you're going to commission assignments from conflict places, you slow down, have a good relationship with a fixer you know, or a staffer, because it takes resources to do this stuff right. Maybe this isn't going to work out. But what Jon said is right. Twenty-five cents per word is pretty common, and $25 for a photo from a conflict zone is what some are being paid today. I just don't think that's sustainable. It's not good for the industry, and obviously it's too little for the freelancers that are risking their lives.
JS: The question is, is that a public good? This gets back to the funding model. When we go out to foundations and individuals, we are trying to raise money to support journalism in general, particularly on under-reported, systemic issues. That's the case we make—that this is not commercially viable. We need resources. We started off with the idea that if we cover the travel cost, the insurance cost for reporters going out, then the outlets we place it in would pay for the work itself. So we give five, ten, twenty-thousand dollar grants for people to be in the field for weeks, and then they write a two, three thousand-word piece. Jason has written 10,000-word pieces, fabulous stories, that have won national awards, and yet they are twenty-five, thirty cents a word. Right? Sometimes a little better. But it's not enough.
JM: A dollar fifty a word would the second gold rush! We only need half that! (laughter)
FS: I think one of the dangers is when we put out demands, that ok if you are going to use freelancers you have to pay so much and provide this level of support, a lot of editors and a lot of news editors say "Fine, we're not going to use them" because it's a big risk, there's no real money in it, commercially. Allison said it's not the part of the paper that makes money, so people are just backing off. The Wall Street Journal never replaced Daniel Pearl's position. They just dropped that position from the paper. There are a few news organizations that are maintaining or expanding, The New York Times, CNN in some degree, and VICE News (JS: and BuzzFeed) and a lot of those are also clients in terms of our hostile environment training.
What we don't want is the demands to be so high that nobody is going to end up using freelancers and I think we are moving toward a model that Chuck pioneered, which is non-profit funded journalists, for international reporting project. Johns Hopkins, they've supported some things. The Pulitzer Center. The danger, the downsides of non-profit reporting is it can crowd out, people will just say "Well, I will just wait for somebody to come through from the Pulitzer Center so they are taking the risk, paying for the story, so I'm not going to pay freelancers." That's a problem, but I think down the road we have to move more toward non-profit funded reporting. Where there is support to the journalist to get the story, and then the news organization, like in the case of Pro Publica or the Center for Public Integrity, can reap the benefits from it. It's not necessarily a bad model but it's not ideal.
JS: One thing I'd like to have seen in the guidelines that I wasn't successful at getting included, and in our experience it's the absolute most important thing, and at the Pulitzer Center we call it "the talk." If a journalist proposes going to a hostile environment, we spend a lot of time talking to that individual making sure that he or she knows, fully understands, what they are getting into. Frank was talking about how we want to have insurance that is going to cover you for surgery or long-term rehab, and yes, there are staff positions that cover you for that. But for younger journalists, they often don't have an appreciation that they can lose their sight, their limbs, their children/spouses/parent can be without them if they're killed. And they'll be living with that consequence forever. Even at The New York Times. David knows what that experience is like, to have his family go through that. And let alone someone who doesn't have that kind of coverage. So to make sure they know that we're going to do what we can, as our relatively small organization, but there are distinct limits to what we're going to be able to do if they get into trouble. You need to make sure the journalists know that, and you need to be persuaded yourself that they are so hell-bent on doing that work (the classic line: "You shouldn't go into journalism unless it's the only thing you can imagine doing") and you want to feel that they understand what all the risks are, short and long term. I think that is an important part of these guidelines.
HA: That gets at the idea of what I was saying about the idea now that Syria for example is "not for the amateur; you should just stay away." And I think that won't work because there will always be eager freelancers who go where no one else wants to go. But also we should facilitate the safest way to do that rather than put those red lines saying you can't do that, you shouldn't do that, we know best. I find that kind of unproductive and condescending. I remember what it is like to be 26 and the fact that I'm really excited to do a good job and also getting out safely and my colleagues getting home to see their families as well. So now there are a lot more ways that you can have the talk. So even with a news organization that hasn't signed on to the protocols, hasn't made that institutional shift back to the 2003 mentality that "there are people for which we need to do absolutely everything we can, and if not, we don't have a story, and we just need to deal with that. Do less." So now there are closed, secret groups on Facebook that I can add you to, where you can have "the talk" with people who have been in that position and who have up-to-date information. So if I were going back tomorrow to Egypt—or like how Jason just got back from the Turkish-Syrian border, I've heard that that place is now really hard to work because of potential Jihadist attacks on the Turkish side of the border. I wouldn't know that if it weren't for these closed forums that are around. So I would say if you're going to go over, I'd say definitely check those out because they'll give you the "talk.'
Q1: Can you tell us a little bit about the policies where there is an abduction and you have negotiators on the ground within hours and ransom is discussed?
DR: We were talking about Michael's comment earlier—you know, that every organization has a different situation whether they can afford, well, they aren't supposed to talk about this, but there is something called a kidnap and ransom policy; some organizations have varied amounts in what they cost and what they'll pay for negotiators. Mine wanted $25 million in cash, and 15 prisoners from Guantanamo. So you can have these expert negotiators, but these policies don't cover millions of dollars in ransom. European governments are paying higher and higher in ransoms, so it's a real problem. When these cases drag on for so long, it's not because there wasn't effort by the family. It's just the sad case of what the kidnappers' expectations were.
FS: If I could point out, the Obama administration was cowardly in deciding not to provide information that I think the Foley family [James Foley, the freelancer executed in Syria] in particular needed when they were trying to negotiate with his captors and ultimately failed. The administration's view was that they couldn't facilitate anything, and in fact they said if they negotiate with terrorists or provide any ransom to a US-designated terrorist group, you could be prosecuted. What they didn't say was that no US citizen had ever been prosecuted for providing ransom to a terrorist organization for trying to get back a family member. That's something people need to be aware of. The government can't pay the ransom, but an individual can. It's inconceivable to me that any family member would be prosecuted for paying a ransom.
DR: Can I clarify one thing? It's a problem in the government with coordination. The FBI was very helpful in facilitating in negotiations with my case and they were very helpful in facilitating negotiations in Michael's case. The problem is the White House. Something changed between my captivity in 2009 where there was this very helpful FBI and no warnings, and then in 2014, later in the Obama administration, they, as Frank said, told all of the Syrian hostage families that they could face prosecution. That was never said to my family in 2009.
Q1: I lived in Colombia, South America for about a year, and was dabbling in freelancing amongst other things and I sort of created my own hierarchy of publications to pitch to, like the top would be The Guardian, Miami Herald, that paid and below that would be some more established websites that published things about Latin America that did not pay, and below that, locally-based English language publications. I found often that I had the potential to be published but for no money. I thought, on one side of my mind, I will get some bylines get some for my portfolio, some publicity, get my name out there; while on the other side of my mind was thinking, if I'm giving my copy for my hard work for writing that article, being published and not being paid for it, I'm kind of contributing to the problem of non-payment. My question is, what do you think is the right thing to do for a freelancer; is it just having the policy of "I'm not giving my copy unless I'm being paid," or do you want to go for the "Hey, let's just be a shameless self-promoter and get the byline, publicity and hopefully at some future date, some publications will pay me more often?"
HA: Not option B. You always get paid for your work. That's what you do, that's your risk, that's what you do. So if you give it away, you're setting a precedent for yourself and that's zero. That's not good, so no, definitely demand pay for what you do. I know it's hard and there's that story that went viral, I think it was about The Atlantic, that "journalists should be honored to write for us." No, it's not. You have bills to pay.
JS: I would disagree on that. Part of this is we do a lot of work with schools like American University, and so we have student journalists who go out and do projects with us. We are quite aware of how important it is to establish your name and be out there. I don't know how many times we told young journalists who don't have any track record, do a blog, start writing, look for any way that you can get your name out. And there have been many instances where that has worked—because you had something maybe you did for free, for some lesser outlet.
FS: If you're going to freelance, you need a gig. You have to figure out what your gig is, you might be working for a business publication, where you don't get a byline; The Economist comes to mind but there are a lot of others. I used to work for Human Rights Watch and it was a great gig, and it was quite complimentary; it can be tricky but it can be done. I also think that one of the things that I did--this was a long time ago--I would do an investigative story for some place that wasn't going to pay a lot, but it was going to pay something, and then I would do an op-ed for a newspaper where I was saying something new and getting paid $350 for the op-ed where I felt, if I'm going to get exploited anyway, at least it's going to get it out there.
HA: About the blogging, I support that, if you are doing a blog or regularly tweeting from wherever you are. If I were a hiring editor, I would say "Oh wow, this guy has a great blog, and his tweet feeds, open up a retainer, let's have a chat." Definitely, that kind of work, even where you're not getting paid, that does help exposure.
Q2: Hannah this question is mostly for you, but Frank and David if you want to speak too please do. I think a lot of times, something we often forget to speak about is the role of women in freelancing and journalism, gender norms really do (vary) across the globe, so what challenges might a woman face that a man overseas may not face?
HA: You know, people are always surprised when I say I always found it to be a benefit, frankly, in the Middle East, where I spent most of my overseas time. So you know, in a conservative society like Iraq, or Libya, or Syria, I can go in with my male colleagues, I can interview commanders and insurgents and rebels and tribal leaders, and then they have to go back to the men's quarter. I can go into the kitchen and the living room and the nursery, and I get the other half of the population that is off limits to my male colleagues. Of course, they have ways, having a local female journalist do those interviews, for example. I saw things that my male colleagues would have never had access to. It could even be a female genital mutilation story in Egypt. No, I have not found it to be hard. I have found that sometimes there is the vibe of war reporting—you don't want to be seen as "Can you help me with my bags, can you get up and give me the seat, or make a special trip because I need a special bathroom?" There are some of those tensions sometimes, but it's never been an issue because you go, you hold your own, you prove yourself.
JS: We will continue this discussion during the reception outside. Again, I want to thank American University, Bill and his colleagues here, and especially all of the panelists.
On Sunday, March 29, the Pulitzer Center and American University co-sponsored a panel discussion on the dangers facing freelance journalists working in hostile environments—an issue of growing concern at a time of heightened attacks on journalists and diminished resources at many leading news outlets.