I came across this article the other day by Francesca Borri, an Italian freelance journalist covering the fighting in the middle east, specifically Syria. It was quite eye-opening as to what the risks actually were as a journalist in those kinds of environments, especially a freelance one who isn’t even guaranteed that her stories will sell.
She speaks with exasperation about her editors not wanting appreciating the danger every single minute in those environments, and that the only stories they wanted were to do with wherever the violence was most concentrated, with the highest number of casualties. She accepts the risks to her own life as part-and-parcel of the job, but says that the word ‘free’ in ‘freelance’ is misnomer as they, more than other types of journalists, are forced to cover the most dangerous stories in order to make ends meet as those are the only stories editors are interested in.
“People have this romantic image of the freelancer as a journalist who’s exchanged the certainty of a regular salary for the freedom to cover the stories she is most fascinated by. But we aren’t free at all; it’s just the opposite. The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay. And it’s not even Aleppo, to be precise; it’s the frontline. Because the editors back in Italy only ask us for the blood, the bang-bang. I write about the Islamists and their network of social services, the roots of their power—a piece that is definitely more complex to build than a frontline piece. I strive to explain, not just to move, to touch, and I am answered with: “What’s this? Six thousand words and nobody died?
Actually, I should have realized it that time my editor asked me for a piece on Gaza, because Gaza, as usual, was being bombed. I got this email: “You know Gaza by heart,” he wrote. “Who cares if you are in Aleppo?” Exactly. The truth is, I ended up in Syria because I saw the photographs in Time by Alessio Romenzi, who was smuggled into Homs through the water pipes when nobody was yet aware of the existence of Homs. I saw his shots while I was listening to Radiohead—those eyes, staring at me; the eyes of people being killed by Assad’s army, one by one, and nobody had even heard of a place called Homs. A vise clamped around my conscience, and I had to go to Syria immediately.
But whether you’re writing from Aleppo or Gaza or Rome, the editors see no difference. You are paid the same: $70 per piece. Even in places like Syria, where prices triple because of rampant speculation. 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. So you end up maximizing, rather than minimizing, the risks. 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. The editors are well aware that $70 a piece pushes you to save on everything. They know, too, that if you happen to be seriously wounded, there is a temptation to hope not to survive, because you cannot afford to be wounded. But they buy your article anyway, even if they would never buy the Nike soccer ball handmade by a Pakistani child.
With new communication technologies there is this temptation to believe that speed is information. But it is based on a self-destructive logic: The content is now standardized, and your newspaper, your magazine, no longer has any distinctiveness, and so there is no reason to pay for the reporter. I mean, for the news, I have the Internet—and for free. The crisis today is of the media, not of the readership. Readers are still there, and contrary to what many editors believe, they are bright readers who ask for simplicity without simplification. They want to understand, not simply to know. Every time I publish an eyewitness account from the war, I get a dozen emails from people who say, “Okay, great piece, great tableaux, but I want to understand what’s going on in Syria.” And it would so please me to reply that I cannot submit an analysis piece, because the editors would simply spike it and tell me, “Who do you think you are, kid?”—even though I have three degrees, have written two books, and spent 10 years in various wars, first as a human-rights officer and now as a journalist. My youth, for what it’s worth, vanished when bits of brain splattered on me in Bosnia, when I was 23.”
The final paragraph left chills up my spine as she beautifully illustrates how a different view of the world takes hold of you when death is so present and so possible.
“Had I really understood something of war, I wouldn’t have gotten sidetracked trying to write about rebels and loyalists, Sunnis and Shia. Because really the only story to tell in war is how to live without fear. It all could be over in an instant. If I knew that, then I wouldn’t have been so afraid to love, to dare, in my life; instead of being here, now, hugging myself in this dark, rancid corner, desperately regretting all I didn’t do, all I didn’t say. You who tomorrow are still alive, what are you waiting for? Why don’t you love enough? You who have everything, why you are so afraid?”