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16 March 2022

The work of local journalists in war reporting has gone unnoticed for too long

The death of a Ukrainian reporter working for Fox News highlights the under-recognition of “fixers” in helping major media outlets cover big global stories.

By Sophie McBain

On 14 March, a vehicle carrying a team of Fox News journalists came under attack in the Ukrainian village of Horenka. The veteran cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski was killed, as was the team’s local producer, Oleksandra Kuvshinova, a 24-year-old Ukrainian journalist. Their colleague Benjamin Hall was injured, and is reported to be in a critical condition

The attack came just a day after the American filmmaker Brent Renaud was killed, reportedly after his car came under Russian fire at a checkpoint near Kyiv. According to Lyudmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights chief, at least 35 journalists have been injured by Russian forces in Ukraine, and three other Ukrainian journalists have been killed.

In the aftermath of the 14 March attack, the Kyiv Independent, a local newspaper, reported that Kuvshinova had been killed and her Fox News colleagues in Ukraine mourned the death of a young woman they described as “funny”, “kind”, “brave” and “brilliant” at her job. But for hours afterwards, Fox News’s own coverage mentioned only Zakrzewski’s death. The delay, so jarring, highlighted a long-standing concern over how local journalists, producers and fixers are treated by the international news organisations and foreign reporters who depend on their expertise.

Newspaper readers and TV viewers are rarely aware of the behind-the-scenes work that makes it possible for a reporter to fly into a new country, or a new warzone, and report with accuracy and authority. Almost all international journalists depend on local producers or “fixers”, who are often journalists themselves and can share their contacts and knowledge, as well as help translate the local language and culture.

Their job is crucial, and it is often under-recognised – fixers’ work often goes uncredited, they are paid less than international journalists and have fewer opportunities for job advancement, and they often shoulder greater risks. While some foreign correspondents acknowledge their dependence on local colleagues, others appear blind to it. A telling survey by the Global Reporting Centre found that half of journalists said they were never corrected by a fixer, while 80 per cent of fixers reported correcting a journalist. Similarly, 38 per cent of journalists said they never relied on fixers for editorial guidance, while 45 per cent of fixers say journalists always rely on them for editorial guidance. Even the term “fixer” often minimises the degree of journalistic and editorial work involved (some resist the term).

The practice looks (and frankly is) colonial: high profile, mostly white and mostly Western correspondents benefiting from the hidden work of local, usually non-white and non-Western journalists. Even so, the role of fixers is actually expanding – as security concerns and declining news profits cause foreign bureaus to shrink.

In an interview on CNN, the broadcast journalist Clarissa Ward, who was friends with Zakrzewski, highlighted the vital role played by local fixers – and acknowledged the additional risks and strain they face when reporting on terror and violence in their own communities. “The producers we work with in Ukraine and other warzones, they’re the ones who have the courage to stay when everyone is fleeing,” she said. “Their bravery is frankly staggering.”

I have hired fixers for international stories before, and as a news agency editor I sometimes worked with stringers and local journalists who reported on conflicts that were tearing apart their communities – and I too was always struck by their courage. War reporting is necessarily dangerous and psychologically painful work, but how different it is to report on an atrocity when you have a plane ticket out and a safe, warm home to return to. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Yazidi fixer and translator who secured permissions and interviews for me, who translated for me, who invited me into his home and explained his culture to me, who was kind enough to pretend not to notice how often I wept after an interview, had himself been forced to flee the 2014 Islamic State onslaught. His mother and sisters cooked me dinner in their one-bedroom shelter on the edge of a refugee camp.

A friend of mine, a talented and courageous Egyptian journalist who sometimes works as a fixer for international reporters described to me how his safety depends on the individual he works with: whenever his team got into trouble, Egypt’s security forces made clear that errant foreigners are at risk of deportation, but that as an Egyptian he risked arrest – and yet, some foreign reporters are more risk-conscious than others. It frustrated him that he often found the story, built up contacts, translated the interviews, asked the vital questions the foreign journalist didn’t think to ask – but was rarely credited, which made it hard for him to build up his own CV. He was also underpaid.

In a piece for News Lines magazine, Asser Khattab describes the emotional toll it exerted to report for years on Syria’s civil war, and the glass ceiling he brushed up against because of his nationality: “being one of few foolish young Syrians who was ready to risk their lives to do anything, even for free, for a chance to work for an international media outlet probably gave my career a head start. My willingness to take such risks caught the attention of respected journalists and influential editors, and paved the way for the jobs that I would, somewhat easily, be able to get later on.

“But as I found out later, I had not ‘made it’ by securing one unstable position after the other in those companies, and a distinction between me and other reporters in those companies was always made clear.

“I realised I had fallen into a trap: my background and experiences in Syria, my network of contacts on all sides and my ability to speak and write in more than one language made me a highly desired addition to bureaus of news organisations covering Syria, but only in a supplementary capacity to others.”

This doesn’t mean that international news organisations should stop using local producers, fixers and journalists – they couldn’t function without their expertise – but a fair and meritocratic system would work very differently. Working as a fixer would be a way for talented young journalists in countries where the independent media is small or underdeveloped to learn alongside experienced reporters; the fixer can share their local contacts and knowledge, the reporter can train them in how to pull together impactful stories and translate local events for an international audience. The fixer would be fairly paid and recognised, and would have the opportunity for promotion. If the system were fair, you would see more local producers becoming correspondents and bureau chiefs, and then being offered relocation packages to work overseas as foreign correspondents themselves.

If the system were meritocratic, you might expect by now to see Syrian journalists on the British TV news, reporting on the war in Ukraine, bringing with them their intimate knowledge of how Russian forces operate on foreign soil, and a deep understanding for what it takes to be passionate and hungry and brave enough to report on the war tearing apart your own home. And we all, as readers and as viewers, would know much more about the sacrifices local producers make.

[See also: War has become a media event from which there is no escape]

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