Tablet explores the ethics of using hungry freelancers in risky war zones

As a young J-school student, my goal was to eventually land a job as a staff foreign correspondent for a prestigious newspaper. What could be more fun, more interesting, more exciting, more glamorous? 

I've had many great experiences as a journalist but that fantasy never happened, though I've worked overseas multiple times on an assignment basis or at a foreign publication.

Life takes its own course.

Given today's field tech advances and ease of travel, its arguably easier than ever today to call yourself a foreign correspondent. I don't mean as a full-time staffer, of course. That job is harder than ever to snag as news outlets have dramatically slashed their overseas bureaus and travel budgets to save their dwindling cash. Not to mention that every poll on the subject that I can remember makes clear that Americans, as a whole, prefer domestic to foreign news.

What is easier than ever, however, is to get as much high-tech equipment as you can carry and afford, buy an airline ticket to a news hotspot, call yourself a freelance foreign correspondent -- a stringer, by any other name -- and hustle to sell copy, audio, stills or video to anyone who will have them. 

Problem is, those news hotspots are generally the world's most dangerous locales in which to operate. Chief among them these days, is the chaotic, hyper-dangerous Muslim Middle East -- Yemen, Libya, Egypt, and above all, Iraq and Syria.

That's where Steven Sotloff headed, and he paid for it with his life. Tablet, an online magazine focused on Jewish and Middle East issues, recently published an exemplary exploration of Sotloff's life and death at the hands of ISIS, the self-described Islamic State that released a video of his beheading in 2014, after he spent a year in captivity.

Published in June as a two-part article of more than 35,000 words in total, its length alone makes it an extraordinary undertaking in this era of shrinking media- and news consumer-attention spans. Both Tablet and Jonathan Zalman, a Tablet staff writer and editor, are to be commended. Links to both installments are here and then here.

It takes a great amount of courage, ingenuity, tenacity, stubbornness, people skills and a way above average willingness to endure physical discomfort and the human fear of death to do what Sotloff did. 

For the last three years, Syria, where Sotloff was kidnapped and murdered, has been the leading killing field for international journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And really doesn't matter what your background is if ISIS grabs you. It's an equal opportunity butcher, willing to murder in horrendous fashion any and all for -- who can really say? A fanatical interpretation of Sunni Islam? The stock answers seem inadequate in the face of ongoing ISIS depravities.

But it certainly didn't help to be a self-identifying Jew and have dual U.S.-Israel citizenship, as was Sotloff.

Sotloff's personal story ended in tragedy. But there remains the larger question of the advisability and ethics of freelancers putting themselves in harm's way for a turn on journalism's biggest stage. Zalman summed up the situation in Tablet as follows:

As a freelance reporter, Sotloff was living a long-held dream, thanks to the topsy-turvy journalistic structures of the Internet age, in which seasoned reporters with years of experience and local contacts, drivers, and expense accounts had either gone down with the sinking ships of “old media” or been thrown overboard in waves of cost-cutting by their desperate employers. In their place was a new generation of stringers, armed with cellphones and laptops, who worked without health benefits, and often without much experience or knowledge of the societies they were reporting on. And the Arab Spring made the Middle East a particularly ripe environment for freelance journalists -- experienced and not -- who were willing to report from the front lines of war and revolution.
Freelancers embedded themselves with rebel factions and interacted with protesters demanding change from oppressive regimes. And many publishers were happy to have their scoops. “The days of TV stations and newspapers fielding a globe-spanning staff of full-time correspondents are over as media organizations are cutting back and increasingly relying on freelancers,” wrote Sarah A. Topol in a prescient report for Newsweek about independent journalists who had risked their lives covering the Arab Spring. “The back-to-back uprisings of the Arab Spring have only exacerbated this trend, breaking news budgets and giving more opportunities to independent journalists. But these young reporters are often venturing into danger without the training and equipment afforded full-time staffers, such as helmets, flak jackets, satellite phones, first-aid kits, or even health insurance.” For every foreign bureau that closed, there were a hundred stringers willing to put themselves in dangerous situations for a few hundred dollars, a byline in a once-prestigious typeface, and most of all, the chance to be a reporter.

Freelance religion journalists, though they may scramble to make a living, come nowhere close to facing the physical dangers encountered by conflict reporters. But religion journalists, staff or otherwise, who follow closely the ethical questions faced by faith groups should also consider the ethical questions that confound the journalistic enterprise. 

Why not delve into the ethics of news organizations acting as enablers for freelancers who take incredible risks for which they may be unprepared?

It's not that no one is thinking about the issue. The French news agency Agence France-Presse last year said it would no longer accept the work of freelancers in Syria "where we ourselves won't go." And the American Journalism Review was among those who addressed the issue when Sotloff's death, and that of the freelancer James Foley just weeks earlier, momentarily cast a spotlight on the subject.

But still it happens, and the freelancers of course have their own, London-based organization and website. It lists scores of individuals around the globe ready to drop everything and put their lives on the line for a few bucks -- or the thrill of the chase. In February of this year, group organizers met at Columbia University J-school in an effort to begin the process of creating an agreement detailing global safety principles and practices for international news organizations and freelancers.

There will always be journalistic risk-takers for whom the adrenalin rush outweighs potential consequences. Many do incredible work and ennoble our profession. But that shouldn't allow news business enablers to exploit them.

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