Freelance & citizen journalism, the human price of news

“In this new age of journalism, publishers should not abdicate responsibility by hiding behind low budgets”, reports Martin Chulov, a correspondent on Middle East current affairs with The Guardian, commenting on the plight of journalists at the sharper end of danger, and the blunter end of the pay scale.

And he’s right.

Much of the reporting that is reaching us across various platforms from conflict zones, particularly in the Middle East, is facilitated by freelance and citizen journalists who are often more vulnerable to the surrounding violence in conflict-stricken areas with a return than in monetary terms isn’t commensurate with the hardships, or risks.

Francesca Borri, an Italian freelance journalist, represents this conundrum best with her comments in the Canadian Journalism Review on the twisted realities of freelance reporting in Syria: “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. You find yourself alone in the unknown. The editors are well aware that $70 a piece pushes you to save on everything. They know, too, that if you happen to be seriously wounded, there is a temptation to hope not to survive, because you cannot afford to be wounded. But they buy your article anyway, even if they would never buy the Nike soccer ball handmade by a Pakistani child.”

So what is motivating these journalists beyond pay or profession – why invest energy into a task that may bring greater exposure to danger than the reward of revealing a truth, or untruth?

Consider Canadian photojournalist Ali Mustafa, killed in March this year by Syrian government airstrikes in rebel-held Aleppo as he tried to assist others wounded by previous shelling. His motivation to report rings posthumously in his own words on the lives and the struggles of the people he documented: “the best of people I could ever know the worst of fates I could ever imagine.”

As a freelancer Ali had none of the protection that journalists with a major news organisation may have – not in life or death – the exorbitant costs of repatriating his body heaping hardship on a grieving family.

The rise and rampage if ISIS, Libya’s crises, Syria conflict, Crimea and Ukraine unrest, Ebola outbreak, Boko Haram attacks, Occupy Wall Street, 2009 Iran elections, 2011 UK riots, Moscow Metro bombings, Taksim Square protests, and countless others. Take a moment to think about the value of news we consume and the commitment of the citizens and freelancers who deliver it, and the price they’re paying.