March 5, 2015
As one of the only non-profit organizations providing free medical training to freelance journalists in war zones, RISC is in a unique position to offer an unbiased perspective on issues relating to journalist safety and preparation. Since our first course three years ago, we have trained and equipped almost 200 experienced freelance war reporters. We have nothing to gain, monetarily, from the courses we give, so we are free to speak our mind without fear of political or financial consequences.
RISC courses take place over four eight-hour days and are entirely focused on medical situations that result in preventable death on the battlefield. We have consulted with our training provider, Wilderness Medical Associates, and come up with minimum emergency medical training standards for any journalist working in an active conflict zone (see below). We urge employers and news agencies to insist that freelancers complete a RISC – or equivalent – course that provides these minimum standards. We urge freelancers to undergo this level of training before entering a war zone.
In exchange, RISC firmly believes that freelancers who have secured this level of training should be paid at least at the levels specified below while working in active conflict zones. Ironically, US anti-trust laws prohibit freelancers from collective bargaining and prevent news agencies from discussing industry-wide issues of fair payment. As a result, freelancers can be paid as little as $25 for a combat photo that they risked their life for. Our suggested levels are based on an informal (and anonymous) survey that RISC undertook with our graduates and other conflict freelancers, and reflect both the difficulties of reporting from a war zone, as well as the extreme financial stress that the industry as a whole has experienced in the last years. They are also minimum standards that should rise to reflect risk, difficulty, level of experience and of course newsworthiness. These levels should not be used as an excuse to lower anyone’s rate.
Fair payment has an enormous impact on journalist safety because underpaid freelancers may take risks that others might not. It is RISC’s mission to promote the safety of freelance journalists in combat zones. Consequently, we feel both entitled and obligated to bring this issue up. RISC was founded when it became clear that the lack of medical training among the growing number of freelance journalists in conflict zones could lead to the deaths of our colleagues. And RISC courses are free because these freelancers are not paid enough to cover the costs of this essential training. As one of our survey respondents wrote, “I very strongly feel that pay is the most important security issue. Last time I literally chose between doing a security course and going back to Syria for another round of reporting – I couldn’t afford both.”
We understand that journalism takes many different forms, and that a one-size-fits-all pay standard that covers every possible situation is not realistic. Still, it is unethical and irresponsible to ask freelancers to take security courses that, under current payment norms, few can afford. News agencies have the right to only employ medically-trained freelancers; and medically-trained freelancers have the right to be paid at least in accordance with the guidelines listed below. When we raise the topic of fair pay, we assume that both sides will exhibit good faith, reasonableness and flexibility. If so, we are confident that journalists will be able to work more safely in war zones, and that lives may be saved.
Our informal survey asked freelancers what they are paid as well as what they would like to be paid. Expenses (including travel, accommodations, fixer, driver and other necessary costs associated with reporting) are an essential part of fair pay, and currently, very few news agencies reimburse or pay those expenses in full. Daily expenses are typically in the range of $350, and we strongly feel that they should be fully covered by news agencies. This is an exceedingly important issue. According to one RISC alum, “My fixer-drivers earn more than I do on a story: That’s where the bulk of my budget goes and when you cut corners – relying on less than reliable people – you start to put your safety at risk.”
From the range of amounts our respondents told us they would like to be paid, we came up with minimum pay rates that we feel are both fair and realistic. For print assignments, we recommend a minimum payment of $1.50 per word, in addition to expenses incurred during the assignment. (This refers to newspapers, newsmagazines and websites; high-end “glossy” magazines have their own, much higher pay rate.) It should be noted that – given the risk and hardship of most warzone assignments – kill fees should be one hundred percent of the agreed-upon payment for the article. As well, many topics are so difficult or dangerous that the payment should be far above our recommended minimum. We will leave that to writers and editors to work out.
Unlike writers, photographers mostly work for day rates, and we recommend a minimum of $400 per day, plus expenses. The value of a single photo obviously varies widely depending on content, but the minimum payment should be $100. Video is significantly better paid than still photography, and the minimum day rate should be $700, plus expenses.
We are aware that there are freelancers who will consider these rates too low, and editors who will consider them too high. We tried to strike a balance, taking into account the realities on both sides. As stated repeatedly above, these rates are meant to be baseline for this kind of work.
In order to qualify for these rates, editors can expect that freelancers will have body armor and helmet, a combat medical kit and insurance. In addition, editors can expect that freelancers will be trained to the below medical standards, and keep their skills refreshed periodically. We believe that following these guidelines for fair pay and medical training will significantly contribute to keeping freelancers safe in today’s increasingly perilous climate for journalists.
Courses should focus on the most common preventable deaths in conflict zones. Research indicates the four most common preventable injuries that lead to death on the battlefield currently are: hemorrhage, tension pneumothorax, blocked upper airway, and hypothermia. The following skills should have didactic and kinetic learning opportunities to ensure trainee comprehension and skill mastery (see note 1.):