Freelancing war zones and the hypocrisy of media criticizing Amanda Lindhout
It’s with increasing frustration that I’ve read criticisms of Amanda Lindhout’s decision to travel to Somalia in 2008.
Lindhout was kidnapped after just four days in the country. She spent the next 15-and-a-half months a prisoner of Islamic fundamentalists who nearly killed her. She has admitted to her recklessness and naivety. (A feature I wrote based on an interview with Lindhout appears here.)
The scoldings that I’ve read—including a particularly unfair column published by the Globe and Mail—fail to recognize the context of Lindhout’s decision. They also ignore the international media’s dirty secret: if an inexperienced journalist travels somewhere dangerous and pulls a decent story out of their trip, they’re going to be able to sell it.
I do not mean for this essay to serve as a defence of any decision that Lindhout made. On the contrary, I write this as a condemnation of others who have publicly passed judgement on her.
Young and adventurous freelancers are a great deal for international media outlets.
Sending a staff writer into a conflict zone is a very expensive affair. And God forbid, if an employee is kidnapped, a company can easily find itself on the line for millions of dollars. But if a freelancer is willing to get themselves in and out of Syria at no risk to a publisher’s wallet, a lot of editors are going to be happy to take those stories.
One analogy I especially like is to compare young freelancers in conflict zones to garment workers in Bangladesh. It’s popular to criticize unsafe factory conditions, but everybody knows that the demand for $10 sneakers is not going away. Perhaps the greatest distinction between those two situations is that while there’s occasional talk of avoiding shopping at big-box stores selling cheap shoes, I’ve never heard of a campaign to boycott news from Yemen.
I first wrote on this topic for Journalism.co.uk in November 2011.
“If a freelancer is on the ground with a story and willing to serve it up for a buyer’s price, the realities of today’s media economy means that the deal will make sense for all involved,” I argued.
“There are therefore two big lessons that young journalists can take from Libya [the context of the debate at that time].
“One, is that journalists and photographers can die. Libya killed 12, and that was a short war. (Many more were kidnapped or otherwise held captive.)
“But the second is that supply meets demand. With media corporations increasingly reluctant to pay for staff positions abroad, independent freelancers can step in and fill the gaps.
“How fair is it to denigrate a young reporter as undeserving of the opportunity to operate in conflict zones?” I asked.
“If inexperienced journalists can be blamed for increasing the overall risk for reporters working in conflict zones, we can find equal fault with the outlets willing to pay them.”
That year, I was living in Malawi and working on building a freelancing career in Africa.
At the time, I had roughly five years’ experience writing for a city paper in Vancouver, but no sort of training for hostile environments or experience reporting on armed conflict.
When the opportunity arose, I covered a protest that I knew had a reasonable chance of turning violent.
Nineteen people were killed that day. I took photos and I sold the story.
That was the start of a two-year stint abroad through which I regularly reported for a number of international media outlets.
If I had been hurt that day in Malawi, I imagine I would have been criticized for my recklessness and described as inexperienced. But I wasn’t injured, and that riot turned out to be something of a “big break”.
In 2011, the debate was Libya. In 2013, it’s Syria.
In Syria, the risks are greater than they were in Libya. But that seems to have only increased major media outlets’ willingness to send freelancers in without support. And that is what they are doing, only quietly, and through conversations that allow for the denial of responsibility.
On September 9, the Columbia Journalism Review published its latest in a series of articles debating these topics.
“News organizations are desperate for Damascus-based reporters, so they are calling on freelancers, stretching their own rules against doing so,” writes Richard Pendry, a journalism instructor at the University of Kent. “Even as outlets rely increasingly on freelancers for foreign coverage, they are making statements against using them in warzones….In truth, there is ample evidence of other news outlets flip-flopping over whether to employ freelancers in Syria.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ running count on reporters killed in Syria’s civil war stands at 57, nearly half of whom were freelancers. There’s no official tally for the number of careers that have grown out of the conflict, but there’s a notable statistic hiding there, too.
Pendry continues: “Freelancers who had previously sold their work from other global conflicts say that, as the war in Syria has developed, their clients come up with ever higher hurdles to clear before they listen to pitches—but they are happy to reap the rewards of dangerous reporting, so long as those freelancers shoulder all responsibility for insurance, possible medical fees, and kidnapping negotiations.”
It’s worth noting that CJR’s article only deals with a select few of the largest media organizations on the planet. Were it to expand the context it presents to include smaller operations equally desperate for reports from inside Syria, I expect the hypocrisy revealed would grow by a significant degree. (CJR also recently published an essay that includes tempered criticisms of Lindhout’s decision to travel to Somalia. That article notes that there are groups that freelancers can turn to for help preparing for work in hostile environments. A third CJR commentary billed as “The twisted reality of an Italian freelancer in Syria” offers a window into just how perverse the relationship between outlets and freelancers can become. “Should you get a connection, could you tweet your detention?” the author’s editor once wrote her.)
So we’ve reached a point where mainstream media outlets are proclaiming that they won’t accept the work of inexperienced freelancers operating in conflict zones, except that they will, as long as they can do it without offering those young reporters any semblance of support.
Does anybody think that if Lindhout had emerged from Somalia with a nice package of words and photos, that she would not have been able to find a buyer?
In every one of the criticisms that I’ve read about Lindhout, there’s a telling omission: her response.
Towards the end of a recent interview I had with Lindhout, I asked for her thoughts on the state of international reporting and less-experienced freelancers travelling to conflict zones. Here’s what she said:
“I don’t feel like I’m the best person to be dolling out advice to young, aspiring journalists. I think we can all agree that journalism is an incredibly important profession and it is vital to share information. Do stories need to come out of these conflict zones? Absolutely. What happens when big media outlets aren’t willing to send their people there? If they maybe don’t think the story is important, then is it valuable for young freelancers to go in and get these stories? There is value in that. But it’s so individual. It’s so case-by-case. There has to be a real understanding of risk.
“One thing I don’t think I ever did was think about the what-if, and who else would be impacted if something goes wrong. I might have thought that I was willing to assume that risk, but I didn’t think about how it would devastate my family financially, which is what happened. In a country like Canada, our government doesn’t pay ransom. So if something goes wrong, your family is responsible. Young, you never think anything bad is going to happen, and then when it does, you have to think about who will pay the price for that.”
Readers who take issue with what I’ve written here will likely note that Lindhout’s views are now more cautious than my own. I don’t disagree with anything that she said. But I will suggest a shift in the conversation.
People criticizing Lindhout should focus equal attention on the industry’s open secret: for many outlets, freelancers risking their lives is increasingly the only way the game is being played. Why is it that it’s the reporters who are taking the brunt of the flak for that?
A version of this commentary was published at Journalism.co.uk.