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The international reporting you never see

It’s your morning routine. You open your tablet, go to your favorite news app, and skim the headlines over a cup of coffee. Your screen floods with images of election protests in one region of the world, wars in another region, and diplomatic skirmishes in another. If you tap on an image and dive in for more information, you might see the familiar name or face of the foreign correspondent who is standing in the very places you’re reading about. This is the person who goes where you can’t go and tells you what’s happening there.

But this journalist probably couldn’t have covered the story without the help of someone whose name and face is nowhere to be found: the “fixer.” News fixers are locally-based media workers who help foreign correspondents translate languages they don’t know, navigate terrain with which they are unfamiliar, and interview sources who otherwise might not talk to them. And they’re everywhere. There are fixers working in Beirut, in Mexico City, in Moscow, in Sweden, in Los Angeles, and in London.

These media workers are usually professional journalists in their own right, but they’re called  fixers when they agree to help the correspondents who visit their regions from somewhere else. The idea is that the fixer will help a foreign journalist in almost every respect—except with writing the final story or appearing in the final television report. Fixers are usually blocked from contributing to the final story, and because of this, they are often relegated to the shadows of the international news industries.

“I’ve had situations where, you’re the guy on the ground, and you get to do most of the ‘muscle,’ and let’s say, ‘dirty work,’” said an anonymous fixer who works with foreign journalists in Mexico City. “They come, they go, and then you stay, and then, people win prizes for your work.”

Not only can this undervalued work be physically and emotionally exhausting—it can also put these local media workers in significant danger, especially if they are helping foreign correspondents cover sensitive stories. “It is too risky for me to stay in the same place,” said one anonymous news fixer based in Somalia. “These guys [from Al-Shabaab] will always try to hunt down and assassinate me because of the work I am doing. Because I have worked with so many international people.”

Chris Knittel, a US-based fixer who helps journalists and documentarians cover stories about gang violence, also worries about safety. “Once the cameras and crew are gone you must deal with any aftermath or perceived problem that may arise after the film airs,” said Knittel. “If a gang member thinks that the editing team didn’t alter his voice enough, you may have an entire blood set gunning for your head.”

Despite the risks that news fixers face, they still don’t get much protection from the vast majority of the news organizations that depend so heavily on their labor. Few news outlets provide local fixers with insurance, with their own safety equipment, or with systematic assistance in evacuating their countries when necessary.

While individual journalists might try to protect the local employees they hire, they can’t do much without the backing of their news outlet. But Leena Saidi, a fixer working in Beirut, said that news organizations should take more care of their fixers, at the very least, by giving them hostile environment training. This kind of training provides journalists with tips on how to safely navigate conflict zones or other physically dangerous environments.

“If a company uses a fixer on a regular basis, then I think they’re just as responsible for making sure that fixer has that training,” said Saidi. “It’s the right thing.”

While organizations such as the Frontline Club and publications like the Columbia Journalism Review have started to report on these problems, there is still much work to be done. Not only do news organizations fail to talk about news fixers enough; there are also only a handful of academics who have discussed news fixers in their work. Journalism scholar Colleen Murrell is one exception, with her groundbreaking book, Foreign Correspondents and International Newsgathering: the Role of Fixers. Jerry Palmer and Victoria Fontan have also published academic research on the topic. These studies primarily look at fixers working in Iraq, and both studies emphasize the perspectives of the foreign correspondents over those of the fixers themselves.

But foreign correspondents couldn’t cover their stories without the help of local fixers. This is why it is vital that journalism scholars and practitioners also hear the news fixers’ own perspectives. We need to pay more attention to the stories that fixers tell about their labor, stories that show the deeply collaborative nature of international news reporting in the 21st century.

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