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Freelancing in a War Zone: Hazardous Work, Low Pay, Few Benefits

The deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotloff captured America's attention, but dangerous conditions and low pay for freelancers rarely do.
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The abductions and killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff in Syria captured America's attention, but the dangerous conditions and low pay that today's freelance war correspondents face rarely make headlines.

These journalists and their advocates say that to save money, media companies have largely outsourced the newsgathering and reporting that takes place in the world's most strife-torn places. The result is that young, inexperienced journalists with little to no training, safety equipment or insurance wind up risking their lives in the hopes of selling a story — for which they might be lucky to earn $100.

“Our safety needs to be funded,” said Vaughan Smith, a former freelance video journalist and founder of the Frontline Club and the Frontline Freelance Register for freelance conflict journalists. “That cost is not being covered at the moment by an industry that has not reconciled itself with the dependence it has on freelancers,” he said.

There are far fewer staff correspondents than there were in the past, said Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. News organizations “tend to have a few bureaus in strategic places … then they’ll have to rely on freelancers if they want a byline or a face on camera,” he said.

It’s hard to determine the number of freelance war correspondents, although Smith estimated that there are about 500 Western journalists reporting from combat zones around the world. Advocates for this loose confederation of media professionals say this number is climbing, though, and it often is the youngest, least experienced journalists exposed to the most danger.

“Many inexperienced and untrained freelancers have been heading not only to Syria but to that whole region over the last few years,” said Tina Carr, director of the Rory Peck Trust, an organization that supports freelance conflict journalists.

The International News Safety Institute says 85 journalists and media staff have been killed so far this year. “Most of the international journalists who have been killed this year are freelance. It suggests that the stakes are a lot higher for freelance journalists,” said director Hannah Storm.

“Longer term, where you’ve got a bureau there, you’ve got people representing you,” Storm said. “There’s a sense that you can be more involved in the story and perhaps more aware of the risks.” Green reporters fresh out of college come to countries often with little sense of the local culture or community, which can expose them to greater risk.

Laura Kasinof, a 28-year-old freelance reporter who covered the Arab spring in Yemen for the New York Times and is coming out with a memoir about her experience next month, said she was paid well and provided with medical insurance, but that there was little in the way of professional oversight or guidance.

“I remember these stories of Libya, of these old war correspondents coming in and giving advice, and we didn’t have that,” she said. “I had no experience with conflict so I didn’t really have experience on how to get close to it …. I was young and I was with a lot of young journalists, and we all got closer than we should have,” she said. “I don’t think the editors knew the extent to which my safety was compromised.”

A lack of experience combined with a lack of money can be especially deadly. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 219 journalists have been killed in combat or crossfire since 1992, including 68 freelancers. Last year, nearly two-thirds of the journalists killed in combat or crossfire were freelancers.

“People have this strange perception that we get paid more in dangerous areas. I get paid more to do a PR job in the U.K. than to go somewhere like Gaza.”

Advocates say even when freelancers know what kind of safety equipment, training and insurance they should have, they don’t make enough money to buy it, and most news outlets don’t provide these benefits.

“They're aware that they need it. They just can't afford it,” said Alison Baskerville, a 39-year-old British freelance photojournalist who spent five years covering conflict in the Middle East after completing a stint in the military.

“They don’t get a lot of money,” said the CPJ’s Mahoney. “From talking to freelancers, the going rate for a photo or a few hundred words is just a few hundred dollars,” he said.

In response to an email query, some of Smith’s Frontline freelance members reported earning an average of 50 cents a word for text from some bigger American or British newspapers, but that $100 for a story isn’t unusual.

Pay certainly varies a lot. “Per story can range anywhere from 50 bucks to several hundred,” Steven Dorsey, a 27-year-old freelance journalist who covered anti-government riots in Istanbul last year, said in an online chat.

“People have this strange perception that we get paid more in dangerous areas. I get paid more to do a PR job in the U.K. than to go somewhere like Gaza,” photojournalist Baskerville said. “In Gaza, I’d be lucky to get 300 pounds [$483 U.S.] a day, maybe less. It’s a daily rate.”

Day rates aren’t as lucrative as they might seem, Dorsey said. “It's very sporadic. There could be stretches of time where you don't get paid anything,” which could stretch for weeks, he said.

“I was asked by a U.S. news organization whether I would go to Aleppo (Syria) for them. But they said they couldn't offer any insurance or body protection,” Dorsey said. He declined, but other journalists feel they have no choice.

“I had no idea to what levels and extremes these people were going,” Baskerville said of some of the younger journalists she encountered in the field. “Some of them were coming into these places with no helmet or body armor because they couldn’t afford the equipment and there was no allowance from anybody to buy the equipment.”

Baskerville spent roughly $1,600 on a flak jacket and a helmet, and went through hostile-environment training, which can cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to $3,000, she said.

Affording, or even obtaining, medical insurance is another uphill battle. “I remember trying to get affordable insurance through international reporting organizations — and couldn't, because I was an American. It would only cover you if you were Canadian or European,” Dorsey said. “I had very basic travel insurance …. I'm doubtful it would have done much in a conflict zone.”

Too often, it just comes down to luck, combat freelancers like Kasinof say: “We were just counting on the fact that nothing was going to happen.”