By Caitlin Kelly
This story, from the Columbia Journalism Review, is going viral among my journalist/writer/foreign correspondent friends.
It is written by Francesca Borri, an Italian woman who has been reporting from Syria as a freelancer:
People have this romantic image of the freelancer as a journalist who’s
exchanged the certainty of a regular salary for the freedom to cover the
stories she is most fascinated by. But we aren’t free at all; it’s just
the opposite. The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today
is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay. And it’s not even
Aleppo, to be precise; it’s the frontline. Because the editors back in
Italy only ask us for the blood, the bang-bang. I write about the
Islamists and their network of social services, the roots of their
power—a piece that is definitely more complex to build than a frontline
piece. I strive to explain, not just to move, to touch, and I am
answered with: “What’s this? Six thousand words and nobody died?”
But whether you’re writing from Aleppo or Gaza or Rome, the editors
see no difference. You are paid the same: $70 per piece. Even in places
like Syria, where prices triple because of rampant speculation. So, for
example, sleeping in this rebel base, under mortar fire, on a mattress
on the ground, with yellow water that gave me typhoid, costs $50 per
night; a car costs $250 per day. So you end up maximizing, rather than
minimizing, the risks. Not only can you not afford insurance—it’s
almost $1,000 a month—but you cannot afford a fixer or a translator.
You find yourself alone in the unknown. The editors are well aware that
$70 a piece pushes you to save on everything…But they buy your
article anyway, even if they would never buy the Nike soccer ball
handmade by a Pakistani child.
With new communication technologies there is this temptation to
believe that speed is information. But it is based on a self-destructive
logic: The content is now standardized, and your newspaper, your
magazine, no longer has any distinctiveness, and so there is no reason
to pay for the reporter. I mean, for the news, I have the Internet—and
for free. The crisis today is of the media, not of the readership.
Readers are still there, and contrary to what many editors believe, they
are bright readers who ask for simplicity without simplification. They
want to understand, not simply to know. Every time I publish an
eyewitness account from the war, I get a dozen emails from people who
say, “Okay, great piece, great tableaux, but I want to understand what’s going on in Syria.”
Many kinds of reporting, especially war reporting, (and photography and video and audio) — must be done firsthand.
It can’t be done, contrary to the fantasies of some journalism students who have to be shoved out of their classrooms into the world to talk to real people face to face, by Googling everything!
It’s often terrifying and exhausting. It often leaves the journalists (and their fixers and translators) who do it with PTSD; the terrific Dart Center helps them heal after such work.
Great reporting, of the sort Borri is doing and describing, is damn dangerous. It killed legendary American reporter Marie Colvin. It killed legendary New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid, who died — of all things — of an asthma attack in reaction to the dander of the horses he needed to ride to get into Syria.
The photographer with him, Tyler Hicks, as soldiers expect to do and reporters do not, carried his dead body back to civilization.
We cannot, must not ever accept, only the official/sanitized/biased reports offered up by the military or rebels or the government or corporate flacks.
Everyone, everywhere has an agenda.
The reporter’s primary job is to witness, describe, analyze, explain. They/we are more essential than ever in a world of spin , sound bites and soi-disant journalists who “publish” their point of view without an ounce of training or ethics.
But risking your life for $70 a story? It’s a fucking obscenity. Her editors and publishers should be ashamed of their cheapness — I bet they blow that much money each week on their morning espressos.
I do admire her spirit and her dedication.
Would you do it?
What do you think of her choice?