Fixers: The people at the core of international journalism

When a Russian projectile killed Fox Cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski and seriously injured correspondent Benjamin Hall in March, there was less reporting on a third casualty: Ukrainian journalist and fixer Sasha Kuvshynova. Because many aren’t aware of the important role fixers play in international journalism, we asked panelists from a discussion hosted on the topic in early 2020 for their perspectives. 

“At one time, she would have remained nameless,” said Dr. Lindsay Palmer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of “The Fixers: Local News Workers and the Underground Labor of International Reporting (Oxford University Press 2019)”. “But lauding her work in news articles isn’t enough. I want to know if she had safety equipment and medical insurance. I want to know if her death could have been avoided.”

What are the specific tasks that a local producer may carry out when working with a correspondent? 

Palmer: Fixers and local producers of course help arrange travel, set up interviews, and translate for foreign correspondents who don’t have the necessary language skills. But they also play an editorial role. They help correspondents brainstorm ideas, they suggest different angles to pursue, and,  sometimes, they even do a fair degree of the reporting for a story (especially if the correspondent needs to be somewhere else or if they don’t feel safe going out to interview people, as in Iraq in the early 2000s). Their editorial role is often belied by correspondents, though. And finally, they help to act as safety advisors to foreign correspondents, despite the fact that few people actively think about these local producers’ own safety.

Larry Kaplow (Middle East Editor, NPR): Here’s just a small sample of things that a correspondent might ask a local producer:

  • “Do you know where we can go buy a generator?”
  • “How can we interview someone at the ministry of the interior about these arrests?”
  • “Can you watch the (local) news tonight and write down what they say about what happened today?”
  • “Do you think we can interview the priest after the mass? Can you go up and ask?”
  • “Can you call around and see if we can find anyone who knows the family that lived in that house that got bombed?”
  • “Do you think we can talk our way into the hospital to talk to people who were wounded?”

Many of those things are necessary if the correspondent can’t speak the local language, especially. Even getting appointments requires help.

How would you refer to the role most commonly known as “fixer” or “local producer” and why? 

Palmer: The word “fixer” has a vexxed history, and it’s a controversial term. Some of the local news workers who help foreign correspondents actually prefer the term, because of its wide recognizability and the resourcefulness it suggests. But others — especially those who are professional journalists — tend to prefer to be called “local producers” or simply “local journalists.” I think it’s important to ask each individual person how they understand their own work and what they prefer to be called. 

Kaplow: About credit for local producers: This of course depends in part on the media organizations’ standards for when someone gets a byline or tagline at the end of a story. But there are times when identifying a producer on a story could get them in trouble either now or much later as the story remains on the internet. It’s a discussion that correspondents should have with their producers, reminding them that once it’s on the web it stays there.

Are there any tactics that you recommend correspondents and editors implement to minimize potential harm to the local producers who partner with them, especially in more restrictive countries? 

Chris Knittel (a fixer and producer): Networks and media companies need to allocate special resources toward helping the fixer/local producer navigate risk assessment and actively support them with the tools needed to stay safe during and after the shoot. … Journalists and their companies should advocate for insurance, proper kit, specialized training, better pay, and any specific tool needed to help keep them safe. If you bring them into the fold and treat them as one of your own, you will develop a strong, long-lasting bond that will yield powerful stories for years to come. 

Palmer: Don’t try to be a cowboy. Don’t seek dangerous situations just for the sake of it, and don’t engage in arguments with authority figures if at all possible. … One way to minimize harm to local producers is very simply to listen to them — especially in dangerous situations. Another way to minimize harm is to ensure that local producers, journalists, and fixers have access to all the same safety equipment and medical insurance that news organizations offer their correspondents. There should not be a hierarchy when it comes to safety.

Kaplow: A correspondent has to constantly keep the local producer’s safety and long-term wellness in mind. …

Obviously, take time to pause and talk with the producer about how they feel about any potentially dangerous situation you might be going to. … A correspondent should frequently check in with how a producer sees their situation and safety. Some might be reluctant at first to speak openly if they feel concerned for their safety. They should know that it won’t affect their employment if they think something is too dangerous for them.

In some places, an experienced correspondent might actually know about dangers a fixer isn’t aware of. Fixers in places that are new to war might not know about the dangers of unexploded ordnance or kidnapping threats or other results of war and disorder. They might not know all the ways a place can suddenly come under fire or how little protection, for example, it offers to be inside a car. The correspondent needs to tell the producer about those threats and how to handle them.

What are some of the challenges you currently see in covering the war in Ukraine with respect to local producers? 

Palmer: The challenges are sadly the same as they have always been. Local journalists, producers, and fixers have more to lose than foreign correspondents. They are working in the places where they’ve also lived, and they’re watching their world crumble around them. Yet, their clients expect them to be “objective,” as if objectivity were ever actually possible in a war zone. Local producers also are more likely to be targeted by local authorities displeased with their work with foreign journalists (this is probably especially the case for Russian producers and fixers right now). 

Knittel: Safety for the local producer and the crew they are working with is a challenge, as shelling and bullets hit indiscriminately across a rapidly changing warscape. Anticipating movement of forces and understanding intelligence on the ground can help minimize the inherent risk. Securing communications and data is paramount for the local producer/fixer as malicious actors attempt to intercept and surveil on a variety of networks. Within the theater of 21st century warfare, misinformation and disinformation have accelerated to new levels of virality. Disinformation infects and spreads like a chemical weapon, misdirecting and blanketing the realities of the Russo-Ukrainian War at breakneck speed. Local producers must quickly employ a multitude of techniques to suss out what is real and what is inaccurate information.

For more insight, revisit the 2020 panel discussion, Fixers and Journalism: Working Together Internationally.

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