I read an opinion piece today that made me stop and think. Like all good pieces of journalism should.
It was about the American reporter James Foley who was barbarically murdered by Islamic terrorists who then shamelessly broadcast the deed on YouTube. The intention was very clear. To goad the United States into a ground offensive in Iraq so that they can recruit more young Muslims to the cause.
But Foley’s tragic and senseless death isn’t why I was drawn to the story or even what the story was about. The writer was talking about the incredibly dangerous game that freelance print and photojournalists play in trying to report the news in places that have become too dangerous in the 21st Century.
I say 21st Century because news has never been reported this way in the past. By that I mean freelance journalists are the new frontline troops in the media war to cut costs. They go to these places with little or no budget, backing and sometimes without even basic training. Many times they go without having the endorsement of an established media outlet so they are truly on their own.
It wasn’t always like this. Wars used to be covered by seasoned reporters who worked for long established media organizations that had the budget to maintain correspondents and a bureau in trouble spots around the globe. But those days have long gone especially for the print media and increasingly for television. Replaced by fresh-faced eager reporters who work freelance, so they are paid per story and prepared to take crazy risks to get it. This trend’s been happening overtime for some time But the Libyan conflict in 2011 was in some ways the catalyst. It acted like an irresistible magnet for freelance journalists who offer a much cheaper option for mainstream media wanting to cover that story. Apparently there were so many freelancers working in Libya at the time of the Gaddafi overthrow they outnumbered the rebels on the frontline.
According to those who were there, the freelancers and the rebels along with an ever-dwindling number of staff reporters would advance forward or backward to safety when the Gaddafi forces advanced. One of those freelancers was James Foley.
According to those who knew him, James Foley was courageous and a very nice man to know. He’d been a former reporter for a US military newspaper, before arriving in Libya full of hope, purpose, opportunity and the belief that he might have been immune to the dangers he faced. In fact there was no shortage of like-minded individuals keen to begin earning their stripes war reporting. And there was no shortage of media outlets willing to buy their images and stories. In fact it was a buyer’s market. Many freelancers prepared to work without insurance, expenses or even the airfares to get them home.
And as Libya deteriorated, it became less clear as to who were the good guys and who were not, and freelancers like James Foley had to make judgment calls on who to trust and when to leave. Safety in numbers ended up being the strategy they followed and it resulted in journalists like Foley forming strong bonds with colleagues he worked alongside and who would share a prison cell with him. In 2011, Foley was captured in Libya along with two other freelancers. A South African photographer travelling with them was killed in the incident. This time Foley was lucky. He was freed after 44 days in captivity. But instead of doing some soul searching and taking stock, James Foley plunged on in again to begin reporting from dangerous places. When Libya became yesterday’s news it was replaced by a more dangerous conflict, the civil war in Syria. It was more bloody and unpredictable. Media organizations were again looking for daring tales and images from the frontline and freelancers like James Foley wanted to take up the challenge even if it meant surviving on nothing more than your wits. In late 2012 and mid 2013 the risks began to outweigh the rewards. Working in northern Syria became next to impossible because of the ever-present threat of kidnap.
James Foley’s luck ran out for a second time in late 2012. He and a photographer were captured ironically on the last day of a two-week trip in an area of the country they had visited many times before. Foley’s captor was a local warlord who would later join the Islamic State. Now, I don’t mind admitting I have a major problem with all of this. What I find hard to reconcile is that 11 additional journalists were kidnapped in Syria in the following year yet the demands for freelance work continued unabated. This kind of journalism has no doubt created opportunities but at the same time it has allowed established media organizations to outsource their coverage for a bargain basement price to reporters prepared to take the risk. It’s called all care but no responsibility.
It has meant that freelancers like James Foley end up paying a terrible price. The Middle East may well be the most important story this century. I just don’t happen to think the price being paid for the privilege of reporting the story is worth it.