Communicating over long distances has never been easier. This has changed the face of war, and the way we report it. Thanks to the internet, consumers expect and demand up-to-the-minute reporting and images, even whilst tightly-budgeted traditional news sources continue to pull their journalists and photographers from conflict zones. These days, freelance photographers and independent reporters keep the data streaming.
Why go on your own into dangerous places to take pictures? It’s the experience of a lifetime. You get to be your own boss. Oh, the stories you’ll tell when you get home! The only problem is that you may not get home. Marie Colvin, the brilliant eyepatched unsmiling reporter, tackled the risks of combat zone reporting in her 2010 speech for war wounded, reminding journalists to weigh “whether the risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?”
Freelancers face more risks than steady-gig journalists. They cannot rely on the support of colleagues, contacts and sources. Funding is limited to what they can afford. They often do not have combat or emergency medical training. Independent journalists often work without travel medical insurance: news agents pay by the story, not the time and risk spent getting it. Colvin felt that indie journalists deserved the same benefits as regular correspondents: “You can’t get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you.”
After Marie Colvin’s 2012 death in Homs, The Sunday Times reacted with a policy banning the use of freelance material from Syria. Other papers have turned down commissions because they could not afford to insure journalists. As freelancer numbers continue to grow, these moral and financial issues are seeing more sunlight. Back in the typewriter days, freelancing was seen as a rite of passage for cub reporters. With today’s ultra-competitive media markets, freelancing is now a full time career. Skills training sessions and advice forums seem to be multiplying, but not as quickly as the death rates. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, (CPJ), only 4% of journalists killed in 2010 were freelance. That number rose to 27% in 2012.
By researching the area, learning a little of the local language, and taking combat zone safety courses, freelance journalists can increase their chances of coming home in one piece. Networking can provide the inside information that can save your life. So can saying ‘no’ to commissions that are too dangerous. As the infrastructure of commercial media outlets changes, freelancers must take personal responsibility for their own safety.