BOSTON — The death of New Hampshire-based journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamic State militants, and the release of Peter Theo Curtis, who had been held by an extremist group in Syria for nearly two years, has brought heightened attention to the risks taken by many American journalists overseas.
A growing number of those journalists essentially work for themselves and are responsible for their own protection.
“When I began as a foreign correspondent in El Salvador in the early 1980s I was working for the Dallas Morning News, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer,” explains journalist Chris Hedges. “All of the networks had established bureaus that covered the war. That’s all gone.”
Even with the increasing turn to war coverage, which has come to dominate foreign reporting, generations of reporters lost their jobs and assignments to the bottom line. In a world of outsourcing, freelance reporters and photographers have become our war correspondents. And it’s a buyer’s market.
“People will try to just take your imagery and buy it for nothing. People will try to put you on assignment for very little,” says photographer Max Becherer, speaking from Pakistan.
Becherer has covered war zones for the past 10 years. He’s a freelancer with an agency, Polaris Images, to represent him. Yet even the agencies are being destroyed by developments like Instagram, that can send photos up into the public domain from the battlefield for the taking.
“The regular news organizations don’t really have the money to cover it like they did,” Becherer says. “And freelancers can fill the gap, but it’s a lot of risks taken on by the freelancers.”
Becherer says he and his agency will sometimes share the expenses, but he has to carry his own insurance. He can’t even get ransom insurance, and he says he struggles to find adequate emergency evacuation coverage.
Contrast that with Chris Hedges, covered by Lloyds of London when he was covering wars for the New York Times.
In Bosnia, Hedges had an $100,000 armored vehicle, while freelancers rode in cars made of sheet metal. And after the Iraqis released him from captivity during the first Gulf War, Hedges had to write thank you notes to U.S. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the pope and the Soviet Union official Mikhail Gorbachev, whom the Times had all recruited on his behalf.
“You have, when you work for an organization like that, mechanisms to put pressure on your captives that Foley just didn’t have,” says Hedges, referring to James Foley, who as a freelancer contributed to the online news company GlobalPost.
Charles Sennott, GlobalPost’s cofounder, calls the news world in which Hedges operated the “ancien regime.” The new world he embraces is this network of freelancers.
“We have insurance in place. We have kidnap and ransom insurance,” Sennott says. “If we coordinate with [the freelancers] and we come up with a good game plan where we can be sure they can be covered.”
Sennott says Foley had followed that model as a GlobalPost correspondent in Afghanistan. But here seems an illustration of the risks of freelancing: In essence, Sennott says, Foley became too much of a freelancer.
“In Syria, Jim really went on his own. He didn’t go as an assignment from GlobalPost. He went to freelance for a lot of different news organizations,” Sennott explains. “And he said I’m going and then I’ll call you. And that is the more perilous situation.”
Sennott says GlobalPost assumed full responsibility nonetheless.
In Pakistan, Becherer reflects on both financial and physical survival. Because of competition from so many freelancers, rates for Iraq, where he makes $250 a day, are the same as they were in the 1990s. He realized Libya was a buyer’s market when magazine picture editors told him, “We’d love to see your stuff when you get back” — after he had assumed all the risks.
As for survival tips, Becherer says he tries to stay away from newcomers, no matter how well-intentioned they are. The job is hard enough already.
“I think you have to personally decide that, I’m going to this place, it’s very dangerous and I’m choosing to go there. So I need to accept that I will or can die doing this,” Becherer says. “Because once you make that decision you can say, OK, I’m probably going to die but what can I do to mitigate that? Then you go backwards.”