Freelancers In Focus

When news industry experts, including Dart Center Executive Director Bruce Shapiro and Dart Centre Europe Director Gavin Rees, gathered in Morocco at the News XChange conference last month, discussion centered on the increasing reliance of major media outlets on freelance journalists. Stuart Hughes, a BBC World Affairs Producer and Dart Center Ochberg Fellow, proposed that media organizations agree on a new covenant—“an understanding that safeguarding the physical and mental well-being of newsgatherers – regardless of their affiliation or employment status – is the responsibility of all of us.”

Young, independent journalists are increasingly likely to be exposed to serious dangers while reporting, yet in a time of major financial challenges for the industry, they have little to no support. In a recent Op-ed for the New York Times, Bill Keller, the paper’s former executive editor, called these new practitioners of global reporting, “The Replacements.” “They gravitate to the bang-bang, because that’s what editors and broadcast producers will pay for. And chances are nobody has their backs.”

This is what concerns Hughes as well. While covering Iraq in 2003 for the BBC, Hughes’ leg had to be amputated after he stepped on a landmine. The cameraman he was working with was killed. In his case, the BBC medivacked him out of Iraq and covered his medical expenses. But freelancers without network affiliations rarely have insurance or support systems to safeguard them.

Industry-wide, there is an increasing level of awareness and acceptance that psychological trauma, as much as physical trauma, impacts journalists. While some media organizations have implemented trauma support units, freelancers are often ill-prepared for the psychological trauma they will face and how to cope with it once they complete assignments. Gavin Rees, Director of Dart Center Europe, wrote about this topic for the Guardian recently. Rees discusses the frustration that many young journalists have expressed, "because they did not have the opportunity to develop strategies that could help them look after themselves." In another Guardian blog, Broadcast journalist Sian Williams spoke about feeling that as “observers of other people’s distress, we often feel that we don’t have the right to be emotionally affected ourselves.” 

The Dart Center is one of the first organizations to recognize the need for psychological support for journalists. Other organizations have begun to provide support systems and to advocate for independent journalists as well, including the International News Safety Institute, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Rory Peck Trust

The recently founded Frontline Freelance Register encourages cooperation among freelancers working in difficult and dangerous places. The RISC course – Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues – provides first-aid training to journalists who cannot afford traditional hostile environment courses, and the BBC Academy’s College of Journalism has hosted events to give freelance journalists the chance to take workshops on preparing for an assignment, battlefield first aid, and coping with trauma.