Safety for Freelance Journalists: Two Tribes Come Together

This piece was originally published by the BBC College of Journalism.

Journalists who work regularly in hostile environments have traditionally belonged to one of two distinct camps. On one side are the staffers, blessed with the relative luxury of a regular pay cheque, proper training and insurance and the financial and logistical back up of a large news organisation. On the other are the freelancers who are able to pick and choose their assignments and sell their material to the highest bidder.

In return for greater independence, however, freelancers are largely responsible for taking care of themselves and footing the bill when things go wrong. The freedoms and rewards enjoyed by freelancers are potentially greater, but so are the dangers.

Those risks have been highlighted all too graphically in recent months with the murders by Islamic State militants of Kenji Goto, James Foley and Steven Sotloff (pictured in 2011 on the Libyan front line at Misrata). Many other freelancers have lost their lives in ‘hot’ wars and targeted attacks around the world.

The shrinking budgets imposed on many foreign desks mean the news industry is more reliant than ever on the video, photographs and stories supplied by non-staff (and therefore largely unsupported) journalists - a tribe memorably termed "the Replacements" by Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Keller.

It’s against this backdrop that a new set of international safety standards has been published to try to bridge the gap between freelancers and the news organisations that buy their work. The document is endorsed by more than two-dozen news companies and journalism organisations including the BBC, AFP, Associated Press, Reuters and the Guardian.

It’s meant to inform and influence the ongoing debate over freelance safety, and the guidelines are intended to benefit both sides.

From the news outlets, there’s a commitment to regard the safety and welfare of a regular freelance contributor with the same degree of concern as they would a staff journalist. In return, members of the freelance community pledge to follow recognised safety protocols, take out adequate medical insurance, and undertake first aid and hostile environment training wherever possible.

Crucially, the new guidelines also reframe the issue of paying freelancers promptly as a safety issue. A key concern is that news finance departments process all payments in the same way regardless of whether the recipient is a lone freelancer who has funded a reporting assignment out of his or her own pocket or a supplier with a large contract worth millions of pounds.

Freelancers say they often simply cannot afford to pay for essentials such as insurance or hiring trusted local fixers because payments don’t come through until months after a story has been filed.

The guidelines are a cautious statement of basic principles, a work in progress, which won’t solve the problems faced by freelancers overnight. Areas such as the status of stringers and buying material on spec have still to be addressed.

Freelancers claim some newsdesks are dodging potential liability issues by telling non-staff journalists heading to war zones not to contact them until after they’ve returned home, fearing that a positive response prior to a dangerous assignment could be seen as tacit encouragement to go into harm’s way.

Emma Beals from the Frontline Freelance Register hopes the new document will help foster a new approach where news organisations and freelancers view each other as allies rather than adversaries. “Drafting the standards was an edifying experience for everyone involved,” she told me. “It was a process of collaboration, not confrontation.

“There are responsibilities on both sides and I think our statement of shared principles reflects that. The standards aren’t the whole answer - they’re just a first step - but they’re certainly a positive one.”