Azmat Khan and her colleague Anand Gopal did what no one had done before: they spent 18 months systematically researching unrecorded civilian deaths by anti-ISIS airstrikes by going door to door in some Iraqi towns in search of the truth. Their groundbreaking investigation culminated in “The Uncounted,” a fearless in-depth report for the New York Times Magazine which not only sparked widespread criticism from across the political spectrum, but also forced the Pentagon to answer some of the tough questions they’d long avoided.
In East Africa, meanwhile, Jacob Kushner and Jake Naughton have for over two years consistently documented the terrible abuses being perpetrated against LGBTI people. And in Yemen, Iona Craig has reported on the country’s civil war as well as the deteriorating humanitarian crisis which has unfolded in its wake. In Afghanistan, May Jeong, who has been covering the war since 2013, conducted two major and news-breaking investigations—one on the bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) hospital in Kunduz, and another on a drone strike that killed an entire family in Kunar.
The list of previously untold stories which were unearthed by freelancers goes on and on. It is a testament to the crucial role freelancers play within both global journalism and society itself. But it’s also a testament to how much the world risks to lose if these indispensable people are not able to do their work in safety.
It is a terrible thing for freelancers when their work goes unappreciated, but the consequences of losing access to the kind of vital information freelancers uncover will be, for the whole world, even worse.
Make no mistake: international coverage of conflicts nowadays simply relies on freelancers. Committed to their beat, the time and energy they invest provides them with a deeper understanding of the story. Their dedication also helps them build trusted relationships with sensitive sources, which often result in consistent, detailed, and reliable accounts.
“There is no way that we could have done this as staffers at an institution,” Azmat Khan, one of the authors of “The Uncounted,” once said in an interview. “No one gives you that kind of freedom or time to … dig deep and figure out what the story is before you pitch it.”
Considering how essential all these freelancers and local journalists have become, though, it is shocking how exposed and neglected they remain. The work they do is often dangerous by nature: they cut through highly sensitive stories, which in many countries could lead to them being imprisoned, kidnapped, or even murdered.
Their struggles aren’t only about their personal safety, either; they also struggle to survive financially, often relying on grants and other irregular sources of income for help. Lacking any significant institutional support, they are often left in extremely vulnerable positions.
Indeed, few news organizations provide comprehensive safety support to the freelancers and stringers from which they commission stories. Frequently, there is no agreed risk assessment or communications procedure. Even worse, these institutions often neglect to provide their freelancers with an understanding of what would happen if something goes wrong—a far more serious likelihood when reporting from dangerous environments. Often, these organizations don’t even pay these journalists well or timely enough for them to arrange the necessary security for themselves.
Thankfully, as consumers of news, we do have influence over this predicament. Just as many of us are selective about the consumer products we use, ensuring that they were made in a humane and equitable way, we can be inquisitive and selective about the news organizations we choose to support. And just as the fair trade movement has come up with a certification for those firms who meet their principles, maybe the time has come for all of us as consumers of news to do the same.
In that vein, A Culture of Safety Alliance’s Freelance Journalist Safety Principles could be seen as a preliminary attempt. Established in 2015, A Culture of Safety Alliance has brought together news organizations, freelance journalists associations, press freedom organizations, and freelancers from around the world to champion safe and responsible practices for freelance and local journalists. It’s a call for freelancers and news organizations alike to reach certain standards when it comes to safety responsibilities—and the number of signatories is growing.
Our hope is that raising public awareness of this issue will help build a wider movement. Our goal, in the end, is to establish in newsrooms a norm for handling freelancers that embraces a culture of safety. Innumerable dedicated freelancers need it—and in order to better understand our own world, so do we.