This article was originally published at CRIAViews, the blog of the journal Cambridge Review of International Affairs, in March 2015. The website has since undergone substantial redesign, and some of its archives appear to be lost. Consequently, the article is republished, exactly as it originally appeared, here:
March 9, 2015
In recent weeks, American journalism has been rocked by revelations that two prominent television anchors – NBC’s Brian Williams and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly – fabricated or exaggerated accounts of their time as reporters in conflict zones, claiming to have come under enemy fire when in fact they had been far from the front lines. These exaggerations are fundamental failures of journalism, and the anchors deserve to be sanctioned, as do editors and executives at NBC and Fox who allowed the stories to be circulated.
Yet as the revelations of embellishment circulated on social media, I found myself wondering if there isn’t a deeper and more fundamental dishonesty in Western coverage of foreign conflicts that merits attention.
As a foreign correspondent in South Asia in 2009-2010, I worked primarily on economic stories, but I had the opportunity to get to know journalists for Western news outlets who were in the region covering conflict and security: the war in Afghanistan, the counter-terrorism campaign in Pakistan, the Indian state’s counter-insurgency campaign against Maoist rebels, and peace-building efforts in Nepal.
Many of these journalists worked hard to get the truth in difficult situations, but they faced limits. Bouncing from foreign posting to foreign posting—as many career correspondents do— leaves little room for reporters to gain facility with local languages. In societies undergoing ethnic conflict, a foreign reporter who can’t ‘pass’ for local will face access barriers. So news organizations have come to rely on a cadre of local ‘fixers’ to do the work that Western journalists can’t: reading documents, making contact with sources in combatant organizations, conducting interviews in local languages, or acting as translators. Often, these fixers are working simultaneously as reporters for local news outlets.
Journalistic nonprofit organizations have argued that fixers need better pay, and stronger protections should they be targeted by security services or combatant groups, and I support these campaigns. But I think we can go further: when a news story is substantially reliant on the work of a local fixer, even if he or she did not produce the English language write-up or script, the fixer ought to be credited with a byline. Not only because of the professional benefit this would afford to fixers, but because Western news consumers deserve to know whose work they are reading.
Moreover, the culture of the invisible fixer enables dishonesty by the minority of Western journalists who are inclined to dissemble. Outsourcing an ever-increasing amount of the gumshoe labor of journalism to a local fixer distances reporters from the details of a story, making it easier for the correspondent to embellish or exaggerate reality on air, and less likely that colleagues will call their bluff: the local fixer who knows what happened is unlikely to be sitting in the editing suite.
The trouble of course is that being totally transparent about the local labor that Western news outlets rely on would call into question the purpose foreign correspondents serve. If Western correspondents are primarily providing a familiar accented voice on the nightly newscast or polishing a local journalist’s prose, it’s hard to justify the vast sums of money spent to maintain foreign bureaus. If much of the real work of journalism can be – and is – performed by local fixers, perhaps Western news outlets would do better to spend their money supporting and enabling local fixers to become fully-fledged correspondents in their own right.
Maha Rafi Atal is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge, and a former Editor-in-Chief of CRIA. Prior to commencing her PhD she worked as a journalist, including as a foreign correspondent in South Asia and the Gulf region.