A message on behalf of The Frontline Freelance Register board
The combination of economic crisis and heightened security risk is diminishing the quality of foreign news coverage. Important stories, particularly in the realm of international news, are not getting the coverage they warrant. International journalists, particularly freelancers, are not getting the support they need and deserve. As newspapers and television channels slash budgets and close overseas bureaus, the task of foreign reportage has shifted increasingly into the hands of professional freelance journalists. This is the reality of the evolution of our news environment, and it's not going back.
The Middle East has played host to a countless number of freelance journalists for the Arab Spring and beyond. These freelancers, many of whom are young, are learning the craft of conflict reporting through trial by fire. Free from the restrictions of the embedded journalism that characterized the majority of Iraq and Afghanistan coverage, freelance conflict reporting is now accessible, widespread, and very much in the public interest. Freelancers have become a vital part of the international news gathering.
In a cash-strapped era where long-term professional assignments have become virtually non-existent, freelance journalism is both a legitimate career choice and an essential component of the international news cycle. At the same time, freelancers are forced to operate without the financial, logistical and institutional support necessary to work safely, efficiently, and most effectively as journalists.
Wars are dangerous, and with physical risk comes financial risk. In Syria, where dozens of journalists have been killed and many more injured or kidnapped, the vast majority of war coverage is coming from freelancers. Unwilling or unable to send their staffers due to the financial liability that comes with these risks, many news organizations have turned to freelancers as a way to cut corners on costs -- most news organizations do not provide security for or hostile environment training to their freelancers.
Other news organizations have rejected this hands-off model, viewing the dynamic as irresponsible or exploitative. These organizations have tried to dissuade young freelancers from putting themselves at risk by declining to buy material from freelancers operating in these war zones. However, without the means to have their own people covering these conflicts, it is audiences who lose out. In the case of Syria, it is the story of 70,000 deaths that suffers from a lack of inside coverage.
The image of the freelancer as a college student with iPhones popularized by the Arab Spring phenomenon has been unhelpful. Every war attracts the irresponsible, the unprepared and the downright crazy. Yet, the vast majority of freelancers in Syria and other conflicts today are hard-working professional photographers, writers and videographers.
Last week, freelance photojournalist Javier Monzano was awarded the Pulitzer Prize -- the first freelancer in 17 years to receive the honor. His success further exhibits that freelance journalists are producing work at the very highest levels of journalistic endeavor and are being recognized for it.
Upon winning his award, Javier captured the essence of why he and hundreds of others do this largely thankless and dangerous work. He said:
"I am very proud for the work my freelance colleagues have produced during the long minutes, weeks and months we have all spent inside Syria (and elsewhere). We work in the most challenging of environments (in some cases with zero or extremely limited resources) to tell a story very few news outlets are willing or able to cover. The support for each other is the only thing that keeps us strong."
It is this sense of community -- this shared desire to support, organize, and represent a professional body of journalists now central to newsgathering -- that has led to the founding of The Frontline Freelance Register. Faced with the haunting lessons from Libya and Syria, freelancers are keen to work together to take their collective security more seriously. Run by freelancers, for freelancers, we hope to create a progressive, innovative and inclusive body that can represent and support freelancers who work in conflict areas and with other difficult stories.
The status quo serves no one well, and there is an opportunity for freelancers to transition themselves and their status in the industry into a more stable, constructive, and regarded role. Providing the best quality news coverage possible, with due regard for those gathering it, is something for which both journalists and news editors should continually strive -- audiences deserve it and good journalism demands it.