Recently, Tracey Spicer publicly called out the Guardian Australia for offering her $140 for a 1000-word article. It was a massive and ironic shortfall, she pointed out. The going rate for a journalist of her stature is nearly a dollar per word, and the piece was intended ‘to spruik a bank in a column about female financial empowerment’.
It’s not the first time journalists have complained about poor pay. In 2013, a furore erupted over the prestigious Atlantic offering veteran journalist Nate Thayer nothing – zero dollars – for a story. ‘We were enthusiastic about bringing Thayer’s work to a larger audience,’ Editor-in-chief James Bennet wrote after Thayer’s resentful response went viral, ‘an outcome, I guess, we have now, backhandedly, achieved.’
A couple of years before that, Italian journalist Francesca Borri complained in Columbia Journalism Review of being paid $70 per article – for reporting from Syria, where wartime economics had pushed the cost of living to hundreds of dollars per day. She compared editors buying her articles to ‘buy[ing] the Nike soccer ball handmade by a Pakistani child’.
It’s Borri’s complaints that ring loudest. While Spicer and Thayer rightly feel shortchanged, Borri was risking her life amid ‘trench warfare between [fighters] so close that they scream at each other while they shoot each other’. Her experiences reflect some of the worse dangers journalists face. Lately, a number of them have been pointing out how interlinked those risks are to wages.
To be clear: a rough time in the Middle East isn’t rare. Syria is ‘in the midst of a vicious civil war, there are criminal elements looking to kidnap foreigners and Syrians alike for ransom, it’s a fluid battlefield (especially in rebel-held areas where alliances between groups on the ground can rapidly shift)’, says Rania Abouzeid, a journalist who has covered the region for over a decade. Some of the horror stories are startling: members of the al-Nusra Front captured American freelancer Theo Padnos in Syria in 2012 and held him for two years; journalist Austin Tice, kidnapped there in 2012, remains imprisoned; and James Foley, twice kidnapped, was beheaded in Iraq in 2014.
Indeed, these dangers are often intrinsic to frontline reporting. Nearly two decades ago, a 1998 documentary called Dying to tell the story offered journalists’ tales of lethal danger framed around the 1993 death of British-Kenyan photographer Dan Eldon in Somalia. Often, the film’s interviewees said, covering a story was impossible without the risk they might die doing it.
But things have changed since 1998. Conditions are worse now.
Over the past decade, media organisations have increasingly switched from keeping full-time staff in foreign regions to hiring freelancers to report from those places. The upshot is badly exacerbated risk. ‘Freelancers generally don’t have an institutional safety net,’ says Abouzeid. ‘I’m talking about things like access to communication devices like satellite phones, providing insurance, and offering support (which can mean as little as an email to check in and make sure everything is okay).’
The gradual lowering of pay makes the lack of institutional support worse. In her essay, Borri compares the needs to her $70-a-day paycheck, which must support everything a media organisation traditionally covered for a staffer:
So, for example, sleeping in this rebel base, under mortar fire, on a mattress on the ground, with yellow water that gave me typhoid, costs $50 per night; a car costs $250 per day … Not only can you not afford insurance – it’s almost $1,000 a month – but you cannot afford a fixer or a translator. You find yourself alone in the unknown.
Worse, ‘underpaid freelancers may take risks that others might not,’ says a March statement from Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC). Competition and the need to compensate for a shrinking paycheck with more and more expenses drives freelancers to gamble, edging closer to danger to get a story.
It’s a big step beyond Spicer’s pay complaint. That said, she’s on the right track to solving it. ‘Exploitation – especially of young people and women – seems rife,’ Spicer wrote in her Facebook posting about the Guardian debacle. She later told an interviewer, ‘I want to speak out for other people who don’t have the profile or power that I have.’
RISC’s founder, Sebastian Junger, is on track, too. The New York journalist shares her age group (she’s in her late forties, and he’s just over fifty) and her intense success (his book A Perfect Storm became an Oscar-nominated film in 2000). And like Spicer, he uses his profile in the field to help younger journalists.
After the tragic death of his close friend, acclaimed British photographer Tim Hetherington, in Libya in 2011, Junger realised that he no longer wanted to go to warzones. Instead, he focused on founding RISC, which provides intensive, week-long trainings in life-saving medical skills for freelance journalists. The combat medic-led trainings, which cover skills like management of spinal injuries, have been held in cities worldwide.
The trainings aren’t cutting-edge. A few organisations offer similar courses, and as of February this year, a compendium of news organisations has backed a ‘Global Call for Safety Principles and Practices’, which advises (but does not require) journalists to attend such courses.
Rather, RISC’s innovation is paying for these trainings, which come at a cost freelancers cannot afford. Junger has made RISC a nonprofit and their courses free – a noble gesture, if still a stopgap for proper corporate responsibility.
Others are working to offer other kinds of support. The Frontline Freelance Register, for example, is an international quasi-union that offers practical support, a code of conduct, and backing for improved work conditions for freelancers. (It’s a bit like a rebel version of Australia’s Media, Education and Arts Alliance.)
Of course, short of reinstating the permanent and well-supported staffers of yesteryear, the fastest way to delink poor pay from excessive danger is just to up the pay. Whether that’ll happen is unclear, though. In their statement on the subject, RISC pinpoints a minimum of US$1.50 per word, plus expenses, as fair. The corporate-endorsed Global Call for Safety Principles and Practices says only that editors ‘should clearly delineate before an assignment what a freelancer will be paid and what expenses will be covered’. For now, Borri’s $70 per article remains plausible, and the $0.30 per word I once earned for articles on the Rana Plaza disaster might be typical.
If pay increases, that won’t end all danger – it will simply dial it back to the irreducible risks of the Dying to tell the story era. And for people interested in armed conflict reportage ‘an excessive risk … is a subjective measure,’ Abouzeid points out.
With all that said, she voices the last issue facing journalists seeking improved conditions: colleagues who’d favor individual competition to collaboration. ‘As for being underpaid,’ Abouzeid says, ‘It’s up the journalist to either accept those conditions or not.’ But a demand for journalists to cope in places where work conditions are never safe – and where, Abouzeid herself notes, editors won’t even answer emails from workers in danger – is a cold-hearted undermining of human rights, ironic from within a profession that often stands up for them.
As Junger wisely points out, that approach is ‘not any different than paying a Mexican migrant $1 an hour to pick fruits in an orchard’.