Freelance journalists often face big-league dangers

Jesse Hardman
Jesse Hardman is a freelance reporter who also works in international media development for the International Center for Journalists.
Photo Courtesy of Jesse Hardman

The Wall Street Journal recently compiled its list of the 200 best to worst occupations, taking into consideration levels of physical demands, stress, employment outlook, income and environment. Reporters ranked toward the bottom, well below nuclear-plant decontamination technicians. Perhaps it's not surprising that during a year when the Great Recession has compounded a decade of newspaper revenue declines and newsroom firings, reporting has become a career on par with garbage collectors.

What is surprising is that so many young people continue to want to become journalists despite this bleak reality and the unknown future of the industry. Graduate school applications at institutions such as Columbia University, NYU and Northwestern's Medill are up. Columbia had a 38 percent increase in applications, despite continued low wages and few opportunities in the industry.

But for those who choose to work in the field, job opportunities are so scarce that many would-be journalists appear to be increasingly willing to risk their safety for a career break. The last year has seen numerous high profile cases of journalists in peril, from North Korea to Somalia, from Afghanistan to Iran. Many of these cases have involved young freelancers, people trying to get their foot in the media door by reeling in big stories abroad.

The world has changed since the days of Edward R. Murrow, Ernest Hemingway or even David Halberstam. Increasingly hostile governments and armed groups operating around the globe have shown they are not afraid to use reporters as bargaining chips, or worse. And with less and less financial backing for foreign coverage, few of these intrepid young documenters have institutional support when they do get into trouble.

Canadian freelancer Amanda Lindhout is the most recent poster child for this increasingly risky work. Lindhout was released in late November after spending 15 months as a hostage in Somalia. She was reportedly released after her family helped pay a ransom -- by some accounts, as much as $1 million -- to her captors.

The Minnesota region has been touched by this year of living dangerously, as two reporters with local ties have found themselves stuck in Iran's notorious Evin prison near Tehran. North Dakota native Roxana Saberi had been reporting and studying in Iran for six years, filing news spots from Iran for NPR and other news outlets. Saberi was accused of purchasing alcohol, and later charged and sentenced last April to eight years in jail for spying. She was released last May after a wave of protest, including overtures by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her behalf.

Shane Bauer, whose mother lives in Pine City, Minn., was arrested while hiking on the Iraq/Iran border last July. Bauer had been living in Syria and filing stories from around the Middle East for various media including The Nation magazine and the radio program "Democracy Now." Bauer and two companions remain in Evin prison, accused of spying.

These three examples paint a clear picture that despite the danger, young, passionate reporters are going to keep trying to bring back stories from far-flung places. The accessibility and affordability of digital media, and the equipment it requires, make their hopes and dreams increasingly possible. And whether a young journalist went to graduate school or not, all are aware that freelancing is what is available, and that the payment for such work is low.

But if media outlets are going to continue to request and take their material, they must also figure out a new system to help support and protect these eager reporters. The responsibility cannot remain squarely on the backs of those willing to take a chance, and the families they leave behind. If news organizations are willing to publish or broadcast their work, they should also be willing to make sure such stringers get training before they head out, and support during their time abroad.

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Jesse Hardman is a freelance reporter who also works in international media development for the International Center for Journalists. A reporter colleague, M.R. O'Connor, contributed to the commentary.

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