The recent news that the Chicago Sun-Times had laid off its entire photography staff was a major blow to professional photographers everywhere, but it was not a surprise. It was yet another example of the continuing shift in news agencies away from full-time employees and toward freelance reporters. The Pulitzer Prizes for photography this year confirmed the trend. Of the six photographers awarded for their coverage of the Syrian Civil War, half were freelancers - highly unusual in Pulitzer history, according to prize administrator Sig Gissler, and perhaps unprecedented.
For freelance journalists, the changing journalism job market is a mixed bag. The opportunities seem endless these days. Most overseas bureaus have been shuttered, so good independent writers and photographers living in remote areas are in high demand. The violent protests and armed conflicts throughout the Middle East continue to attract young, inexperienced writers and photographers from around the world who are eager to jumpstart their career. And widespread layoffs at struggling news agencies, the most recent being the Chicago Sun-Times, leave plenty of room for outside talent to move in.
But most freelance journalists that I've spoken with complain that there is a general lack of professionalism in the news industry when it comes to dealing with freelancers. In the past year and a half, about 500 of these reporters have applied for the first aid training that my organization RISC provides to freelancers who cover conflict zones. RISC was founded by Sebastian Junger after his colleague, photographer Tim Hetherington, died while covering the conflict in Libya in 2011 with a group of freelancers, none of whom had the training to save him from bleeding to death. Junger realized that the wave of journalists heading to conflict zones without institutional backing would need safety training to prevent more deaths like Hetherington's. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 40% of all journalists killed in Syria in 2012 were freelancers.
Despite the enormous risks these journalists take, most say that they're offered terribly inadequate compensation, if any. Considering the amount of money that an independent journalist spends on a plane ticket, a place to sleep, a fixer, and a driver for a two-month trip into a dangerous area, if she's fortunate enough to get a good story while there, being offered $100 for the piece is an insult. Perhaps more common, and even more insulting, an editor will suggest that exposure to a large (online) audience is compensation enough.
Some freelancers are loudly discouraged by editors from heading to a conflict zone, but egged on at the same time with a side note that if they do go, they should send in their work. In December last year, photojournalist Ayman Oghanna started a Facebook group called "Occupy Photojournalism." Oghanna, who took a RISC training in October, voiced outrage in his first post at being encouraged by editors to go to Syria "on spec" - without an assignment - and to try to sell his work while there. Most editors discourage it, he said, but not all, and it is a precedent that should never have been set. "It actively encourages freelancers to take risks and die alone without any support," he said. "To work safely, professionally, in Syria journalists need to be paid. So, editors, 'Give us your fecking money,' and treat us as professionals. Because we are."
Oghanna's group generated massive support in the photojournalism community, with over 1,000 members. In February, the UK-based Press Gazette revealed that the Sunday Times, whose reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Syria a year earlier, would no longer take specced work from freelancers there. Agence-France Presse has also tightened safety guidelines for freelancers it uses in Syria, obliging all of them to have insurance, providing safety equipment (including a bullet proof vest, helmet, protective suit and first aid kit), and stating that all regular independent contributors to AFP will receive first aid training. Oghanna and his colleagues launched a representative body for freelance conflict journalists last week called the Frontline Freelance Registry, in an attempt to establish a voice for the community.
Even when there is a formal relationship between a freelancer and the news agency that sends him on assignment, it is often fraught with unanswered questions about responsibility when something goes awry. One RISC trainee, who was badly injured while on assignment in Afghanistan with a large news agency, was later told by the agency's lawyers that his injuries were not that severe and that he was not entitled to the full amount the state workmen's compensation board guidelines stipulate. He expected that the editors he worked with would back him up. They had been supportive initially and ensured that he received the right medical attention after the incident. Instead, they have abruptly stopped answering his calls and emails.
Junger founded RISC to help mitigate the dangers that these freelancers face. Most news agencies provide their employees with first aid training before sending them into a war zone (RISC has also received a handful of applications from full-time staff at reputable companies who do not train their employees before assigning them to dangerous areas, but that's another story). But freelancers are completely responsible for their own first aid training. RISC has trained 72 freelancers to date, but the vast majority are still out there untrained. We continue to hope that first aid training will become an industry norm, like having a flak jacket and helmet.
It is the current landscape of journalism that allows freelancers like the Pulitzer-winning photojournalists Javier Manzano, Manu Brabo and Narciso Contreras, and this year's Robert Capa Gold Medalist Fabio Bucciarelli, to be formally recognized for the risks that they take in order to bring us outstanding work from Syria. As the news industry shifts to give freelancers more opportunities to publish their work and receive the proper recognition for it, so too must its code of conduct toward these independent journalists. The actions of the Sunday Times and AFP should be applauded, and others should follow suit.
Freelancers should be paid well, they should be insured, they should be trained and they should be treated as the professionals they are. It is not just a question of respect and moral responsibility. It is imperative to ensure that professional standards remain high and the people that work in this flailing industry do not lose integrity.