The Practice of Fixing and the Role of Fixers in Global Journalism
Summary and Keywords
Sociologists and media scholars have offered a robust body of literature regarding the daily workings of global journalism—both in newsrooms and in the field. Although fixers are sometimes mentioned in this literature, the role they play in the production of global reporting is rarely analyzed. Such work often focuses on logistical assistance provided by fixers and discusses some tensions in the field regarding credit and security. Although this literature starts to paint an accurate picture of current trends in global journalism, it fails to critically examine how institutional and on-the-ground power dynamics impact a fixer’s work, let alone how global, systemic, and institutional dynamics shape which stories are reported and how the reporting itself is done. This is a glaring gap in knowledge as it ignores the impact that fixers can have on global journalism.
To rectify this gap, all aspects of global journalism must be explored, including the economic forces that allow global journalism to operate within a context of uneven power and resources. Recognizing that journalism functions in and as a field of uneven power offers a strong introduction to this discussion, but one must also situate journalism, journalists, and fixers themselves within the larger geopolitical realities of unequal economic and political power. These forces shape the process of fixing, which is why any thorough analysis of the role of fixing and fixers in global journalism must situate the conversation within a larger body of critical theory. In this context, mapping current trends and highlighting nuanced dynamics and tensions within the practice of fixing is essential to understanding how global journalism functions—and the role that fixers play in shaping its stories.
“I Need a Fixer!” Wait. What Exactly Is a Fixer? Fixers and Journalists in Global Journalism
Most people outside of the world of journalism have never heard the term “fixer.” Nevertheless, although fixers are mostly invisible, they are essential to the creation of global journalism as we know it (Murrell, 2010; Packer, 2009; Vandevoordt, 2015). Without them, the current practice of global journalism1—where a reporter without literacy or fluency in the linguistic, cultural, or social contexts of a foreign country, can travel and report on a story for audiences worldwide—would not be possible.
Despite this pivotal role, the relative invisibility of fixers in both public discourse and media analysis is glaringly obvious. Although some academic and trade literature on fixers exists, it focuses primarily on tensions regarding credit and security (Plaut & Klein, 2019). Very little is ever said about the impact that these local professionals have on global journalism, and even less is said about the ways in which institutional, global, systemic, and on-the-ground power dynamics shape their work. In order to understand the reasons behind these omissions and to begin unveiling the true role fixers play in global journalism, it is important to analyze current trends in the field and offer a nuanced analysis of dynamics and tensions within the practice of global journalism.
This analysis requires first and foremost that a definition be given to the term “fixer”—no easy task, given the multitude of ways in which fixers are understood by both journalists and media scholars. For the purposes of this article, we draw on Murrell’s (2010) definition, which states that a fixer is a local person hired to assist a foreign reporter while on assignment. Although on a basic level this implies assuming logistical responsibilities such as booking hotels and transportation, in practice fixers’ responsibilities are generally much more profound. Fixers are often not only drivers and translators, but local journalists who assume story-production responsibilities such as finding interview subjects, securing access to government officials, and scouting out dangerous locations (Erickson & Hamilton, 2006; Murrell, 2010; Vandevoordt, 2015). At times, particularly in volatile security situations, fixers are also tasked with the responsibility of conducting interviews themselves (Murrell, 2010; Witchel, 2004).
By assuming responsibilities that go way beyond merely providing logistical assistance to foreign reporters, fixers actively engage in the news-gathering process, impacting the final journalistic product and helping to shape the way local issues are framed for global audiences (Fairclough, 1992). This impact has far-reaching consequences, as the way an issue is framed in the media influences dominant narratives of truth, which in turn can have tangible political, policy, and military implications (Barnett & Duvall, 2005; Brysk, 2013; Carpenter, 2007; Fairclough, 1992, 1995; Strömbäck, 2005, 2008).
Although this impact may appear quite obvious, there has been little discussion of fixing as a practice—meaning that few people have stopped to analyze how fixers operate, what tensions shape their practice, and what impact they have on global journalism and its stories. Rather, fixers are often approached as one more ingredient—sometimes an important one, but almost always forgettable—in the process of making journalism. This article hopes to bridge that gap by shedding light on the process of fixing and the role that fixers play in global journalism.
To do this, all aspects of global journalism must be explored, including the economic forces that allow global journalism to operate within a context of uneven power and resources. Murrell’s (2009) discussion of journalism as a field of uneven power offers a strong introduction to this discussion, but one must also place journalism, journalists, and fixers themselves within the larger geopolitical realities of unequal economic and political power. These forces shape the process of fixing, which is why any thorough analysis of the role of fixing and fixers in global journalism must situate the conversation within a larger body of critical theory.
Discussion of the Literature
Sociologists and media scholars have offered a robust body of literature regarding the daily workings of global journalism—both in newsrooms and in the field (Fairclough, 1992; Johnson-Cartee, 2005; Ward, 2003). Although fixers are sometimes mentioned in this literature, the role they play in the production of global reporting is rarely analyzed. Such work often focuses on the logistical assistance provided by fixers, and discusses some tensions in the field regarding credit and security. This literature is a good starting point when it comes to painting an accurate picture of current trends in global journalism, but it is incomplete, as it fails to critically examine and articulate how institutional and on-the-ground power dynamics impact a fixer’s work, let alone how global, systemic, and institutional dynamics shape which stories are reported and how the reporting itself is done. This is a glaring gap in literature because it ignores the impact that fixers have on global journalism.
That said, there is a consistent body of work that looks at the ethics of journalism as a field, and the ethical dilemmas faced by journalists when reporting. Such work offers a more critical understanding of positionality and a journalist’s role in creating and (re)presenting a story (Alzner, 2012; Bell, 1997; Carr, 2013; Ward, 2010, 2013; Zelizer, 2004)—but few pieces (with the exception of Murrell’s earlier work and Ward’s later work) specifically address the role of the fixer from a critical position of power.
This article builds primarily on Colleen Murrell’s pivotal work on the role of fixers in foreign correspondence, which was the “first to examine the ways in which the employment of local people can inject indigenous viewpoints into the story” (2015, p. 154). Her work detailed how “local fixers can change or subvert the ingredients of the news gathering that becomes the finished story, as seen on our screens.” Although pivotal, her project relied solely on interviews (mostly in 2007–2008) with journalists and executives, and included only a limited (five) number of fixers. In addition, the larger political implications of what this news says—and what this news does—in terms of domestic and international agenda setting is missing. In addition, although clearly outlining a concern, Murrell’s work does not explore what could be done differently.
The goal of this article is to expand on Murrell’s work, adding a number of sources, such as Bossone (2014), Myers (2011), Plaut and Klein (2019), Stokes, 2015 in Ground Truth Project (2017), and Witchel (2004), among others, that give a voice to fixers. In addition, we borrow heavily from feminist literature that foregrounds the importance of positionality and power in recognizing the interplay of method and content—how the story is conceived and developed shapes the story being told, as well as whose story is being validated and marginalized (Hill Collins, 1986; Memmi, 1965). In addition, we focus on how the fixation with “objectivity” often perpetuates already existing power dynamics within the story, the newsroom, and what is eventually seen as the news. As Zelizer (2004) reminds us, there is no “God’s eye truth” to the news. This review also seeks to address the gaps in literature, by focusing on fixing as a process and analyzing the impact that it has on global journalism and notions of truth in the process.
The Practice of Fixing: Mapping Current Trends in Global Journalism
The employment of fixers has long been a common practice in global journalism. Traditionally, their role was to provide logistical assistance—for example, driving, booking accommodations, translating—for foreign journalists who were either assigned to work in a particular country or sent on assignment for a short period of time. But with the collapse of media economic models and the closure of foreign bureaus, we have seen the expansion of the practice of “parachute journalism,” a model in which a Western journalist “drops” into a new place for a short period of time, hires a local fixer to help with logistics and translation, crafts a piece, and then goes on to the next story (Murrell, 2010).
On the most basic level a fixer’s role is still to help foreign correspondents get their story; however, fixers often assume responsibilities that actually impact a story’s final outcome—such as translating, finding interview subjects, securing access to government officials, and scouting out dangerous locations (Erickson & Hamilton, 2006; Mojica, 2015; Murrell, 2010; Vandevoordt, 2015). Perhaps Packer (2009) provides the best description of the many roles of the modern fixer, when he wrote about Afghan fixer Sultan Munadi, in his pivotal New Yorker piece, “It’s Always the Fixer Who Dies”:
He was what journalists call a “fixer,” the local man or woman who helps the foreign correspondent. The help takes every conceivable form: interpreting, finding the phone number of the Iraqi member of parliament, knowing the personal history of the Afghan battalion commander, setting up interviews, hiring a car and driver, figuring out where to get food on a long drive in the desert, dispensing political analysis and cultural insight and—sometimes most importantly—security advice, about this or that contact, this or that road.
As Packer suggests, the fixer’s responsibilities can be all encompassing. In this context, the level of agency or responsibility that a fixer assumes is highly context specific, often depending on the familiarity of the foreign journalist with the language, background, contacts, and political volatility of the region (Plaut & Klein, 2019). In addition, and just as importantly, fixers and journalists develop their own dynamic and level of trust shaping the parameters of what responsibilities fall on the fixer within each working relationship (Bossone, 2014; Witchel, 2004). As pointed out by Bossone (2014), Fowler (2014), and Myers (2011), these working relationships are often cemented with a handshake or verbal agreement, meaning that in many cases no formal contract defines fixers’ responsibilities or the conditions of their employment. This lack of formality tends to be upheld by news organizations, which rarely have written guidelines or set policies that define their working relationship with fixers or their responsibilities toward them (Fowler, 2014; Myers, 2011). Such precarity tends to leave fixers in a position of vulnerability and exemplifies uneven power dynamics that govern the journalist–fixer relationship.
Although this informality has always been a reality for fixers, what has changed significantly is the context in which global reporting is now done. In recent years the collapse of media economic models, the closure of international bureaus, and a rise in violence against Western journalists in conflict zones has meant that fixers have gained an even more prominent role in the news-gathering process (Lewis, 2010; Murrell, 2010; Packer, 2009). Current literature on the role of fixers in media suggests that one of the main turning points in this practice came after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its subsequent civil war. This literature argues that as turmoil escalated and spread throughout the Middle East, risks to foreign journalists grew, pushing them to begin relying more heavily on fixers not only to help facilitate the story but also in many cases to go out alone to actually unearth and report it (Paterson, Andresen, & Hoxha, 2012, pp. 111–113; Murrell, 2010, pp. 132–133). Many argue this evolution in the journalistic work of fixers began in Iraq and spread to other areas in the world (Vandevoordt, 2015; Witchel, 2004). Other journalists and media scholars argue this increased reliance has been going on for a while—it’s just that now that Western journalists are being targeted, news bureaus have become more frightened and protective of their journalists. This has also increased the amount of journalistic work being done by people who are not formally recognized as journalists by the bureau (Dart Center, 2015; Mojica, 2015).
In this context, foreign news outlets have increasingly begun relying on trained local journalists to act as their fixers. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins (1986) coined the concept of “outsider within” to discuss how black, female domestics often understood the power dynamics within the white families for whom they worked precisely because they were outsiders living and working within the walls and structures of the white family’s home. Thus, they had a clearer understanding of the machinations of power. One could argue that self-identified “journalist–fixers” (Plaut & Klein, 2019)—who work as professional reporters at home but “fix” for foreign reporters—are “outsiders within” the world of global journalism. These journalist–fixers have a very clear perspective on the system and structures that make up the practice of global reporting, including the perceived, differentiated roles of fixers and journalists and the dynamics that govern their relationship. The positionality of the journalist–fixers, as people who are fluent in the norms of journalism, as well as the contexts and languages of their country, is unique; and thus, they are often the most sought after by foreign journalists.
Only recently have trade publications, academic literature, journalistic memoirs, and graphic novels (Barker, 2011; Campbell, 2016; Lappe & Goldman, 2007; Sacco, 2003, 2012) begun highlighting the growing work of fixers on the field and the growing danger they face. Despite these recent changes, fixers’ roles remain relatively invisible and unremarkable in public discourse. Today, only a handful of news organizations are questioning this model.2
Fixing as Framing
To begin filling this gap, we must start by stating that the creation of a “news story” is a process shaped by the interactions between various actors. In the case of global journalism, these actors include the news bureau, the audiences “back home,” the global journalist, the fixer, and local sources. All of these actors have different motivations as well as varying, but often uneven, levels of power.
To understand the exact role that fixers play in this process, it is important to analyze their role in framing issues and stories within a particular lens (Entman, 1993; Fairclough, 1992, 1995; Wade, 2011). Media studies scholars such as Fairclough (1992) and Johnson-Cartee (2005) provide the perfect theoretical framework for this analysis. Their work argues that journalistic processes—that is, the way a story is gathered—impacts the final journalistic product, thus changing the way an issue is framed in the media. For both scholars, understanding what goes into the creation of a story is therefore essential, not only because it determines how the story is constructed and presented to an audience but also because of the profound effect that news has on what is perceived to be “the truth.” Because journalists are framing what we, as audiences, recognize as stories of global importance, we in turn should look at the processes of global journalism in order to understand how they shape our perception of the world around us.
In this respect, although often minimized, fixers play a key role in the shaping of global stories, even if this is not always recognized by the foreign journalists and news outlets that hire them (Myers, 2011; Nayel, 2012; Plaut & Klein, 2019). Because they are often journalists themselves, fixers are intimately aware of what is needed to create a global journalism story (Bossone, 2014; Skrubbeltrang, 2015). This awareness, coupled with their responsibilities—that is, suggesting interview subjects or locations, booking interviews, providing local context, and presenting other forms of editorial guidance—undoubtedly means that fixers help frame the story for the journalist, thus shaping its final outcome. In this context, it becomes more than clear that in order to understand how global journalism really works, it is important to analyze the relationship between fixers, journalists, and media organizations, as the process of framing “the story” and deciding what is (re)presented as “the truth” balances on it. This relationship, as we will see in “Tensions in the Field: Power Dynamics at Play,” is shaped by a number of forces, all of which have ramifications that go beyond the way a story is constructed in order to influence the way a story is framed and the truth it carries.
Tensions in the Field: Power Dynamics at Play
The relationship between so-called “fixers” and the foreign journalists and media organizations that hire them are filled with tensions. Although it is important to reiterate that each of these relationships is shaped by its own dynamics, there is one external force that shapes all of them: an imbalance that places foreign journalists and news organizations in higher positions of power than fixers.
These power imbalances are vast and shifting, and are shaped by things like language, cultural familiarity, the backing or lack of backing of a bureau, money, and the power and liabilities of one’s “home” and passport. Edward Said’s pivotal work in 1978, Orientalism, specifically what has been recently been referred to as “the Muslim World,” (Said, 1981) laid out the theoretical aspects of how the Western gaze shapes how we see “the other,” noting it is often more of a reflection on how we want to see ourselves. Deborah Campbell’s 2016 account of her relationship and the eventual disappearance of her Syrian fixer carefully detailed how these larger global structures play out in the lives of the journalist, the fixer, and the story. All of these shape the “field” of journalism, including the cultural capital one has in said field (Murrell, 2009). They are also an intrinsic part of the way mainstream global journalism is produced today. That is because in most models of global journalism, foreign correspondents cannot complete their task without a fixer, and the local fixer, by definition, cannot work as a fixer without being hired by a journalist and/or a media organization. This creates a dynamic in which the fixer and journalist are dependent on each other but are also locked in an unbalanced relationship, created and upheld through the process of colonialism. As with the colonized and colonizer, there is an interdependent but unequal (Memmi, 1965) relationship between Western media outlets/journalists and fixers, where the foreign journalist has the upper hand and relies on the knowledge and skills of the fixer to get what will be his or her story.
This power imbalance creates a tension that can be readily understood if one draws on the work of postcolonial and anti-colonial scholars like Doty (1996), Mamdani (2004, 2007), and Said (1981, 1994), who discuss the ways in which “othering” shapes colonial and neocolonial power dynamics. When this lens is applied to the fixer–journalist relationship, it becomes apparent that real differences and hierarchies of money, passports, and language shape—and are shaped—by historic and contemporary colonial practices. In such a context, the fixer can often be cast in two opposing roles: either a victim of neocolonial relations, operating at the behest of the foreign journalist, or potentially a manipulative, sneaky “local” who is trying to dupe the journalist for his or her own benefit. Neither references the fixer as an equal peer or colleague.
Research shows that most of the time, neither extreme is true (Plaut & Klein, 2019). Rather the practice of “fixing” itself and the process of producing a piece of global journalism become a constant negotiation of power and trust between the journalist and the fixer. As Maggie O’Kane, a global journalist and documentary filmmaker, notes, “The traditional model of the foreign correspondent is a pretty colonial approach,” but by no means are fixers simply victims, nor exploiters, in this process (Murrell, 2015, p. 144). It is through this negotiation, and by suggesting interview subjects, choosing shoot or interview locations, or providing local context, that fixers actually help frame “the story” for the journalist, thus potentially impacting the final reporting outcome. This role, however, opens up potential charges of editorial manipulation by fixers, who may indeed have political affiliations or agendas.
Three Ways Unequal Power Affects the Journalist–Fixer Relationship
Before discussing the effects that these negotiations have on the actual product of global journalism, it is worth analyzing three distinct ways in which unequal power currently affects the relationship between foreign journalists/media outlets and local fixers.
Current literature on fixers, both in academic and trade publications, focuses primarily on the journalist’s thoughts and opinions regarding the treatment of fixers. As such, there is much acknowledgment that fixers often fail to receive public credit for their work (Bossone, 2014). This is an issue that tends to dominate much of the conversation on the blogs and industry publications and was a point repeatedly cited by Collen Murrell’s pivotal work (2010, 2015). Our own research notes that 60% of journalists state that fixers “never” or “rarely” get credit for their work in global journalism projects (Klein & Plaut, 2017).
This acknowledgment has pushed certain journalists to try to change this. Perhaps most famously, New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, profiled in the movie The Killing Fields, insisted throughout his career that his reporting could not have been done without the assistance of his Cambodian reporting partner and fixer Dith Pran (Southerland, 2016). But despite Schanberg’s push to bring visibility to Pran’s work, fixers largely remain invisible in bylines, credit roles, and award galas (Bossone, 2014; Myers, 2011). Although global comics journalist Joe Sacco devoted an entire book to his fixer Neven in Bosnia, Neven too has faded into the story. With no uniform protocol in place, credit becomes a negotiation between the fixers, journalists, and media organizations—negotiations in which fixers rarely have much bargaining power.
Lameck Baraza, a documentary photographer and journalist from Kenya, who covers stories for European outlets and also works as a fixer for foreign journalists, captured the frustration felt by fixers:
Fixers are very important in the line of work that journalists do in general. I feel that fixers generally need to get some recognition, whether it’s just a byline or just a form of recognition in journalists’ work, because at the end of the day the journalist, even me personally, I could have not gotten a story if it wasn’t [for] the fixer. Eventually, journalists do win big awards, but fixers—they don’t get too much recognition. I believe they should get recognition more than just being paid by journalists and then being forgotten.
(Plaut & Klein, 2019)
Although Braza’s sentiment is not unusual among fixers, and clearly points to the interdependent but unequal relationship between the fixers and foreign journalists, a deeper dive into the issue of “credit” shows that views on the matter are slightly more nuanced. To illustrate this, it is worth looking at the graphic representation of the Global Reporting Centre’s data from a broad survey of fixers (n.d.), which revealed that there are times when fixers want credit for their work and other times when they prefer to stay in the background. In fact, the survey revealed that less than half of the fixers interviewed always wanted credit for their work as fixers.
These surprising results forced the researchers to ask themselves why fixers would not want credit for their work on a project. At that point, one answer stood out from the rest: safety.
Statistics gathered by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) shows that reporters and media workers are targeted within war zones, heavily criminalized areas, and autocratic societies (Beiser, 2017). This has led to an industry of hostile-environment training and insurance that, although available to journalists working for a bureau, is often an out-of-pocket expense for a freelancer or fixer (Dart Center, 2015; Witchel, 2004). Although, traditionally, war journalists are protected (in principle, if not in law) by international norms, the same principles do not necessarily apply to media workers (Dart Center, 2015; Kuwayame, 2011; Myers, 2011; OSCE, 2016). In addition to this, who is a journalist and who is a media worker (including a fixer) is increasingly a “blurred distinction” (Murell, 2015, p. 116), and as the current situation in places such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, and Russia shows, principles regarding the protection of journalists is also eroding (Beiser, 2017). There has been a slow recognition of the danger of such erosion, leading to the 2017 UN resolution to protect journalism and journalists, but there have been no formal mechanisms put in place to enforce said resolution.
As mentioned above, the Global Reporting Centre’s survey (n.d.) suggests that even in situations in which fixers worked as equal partners with foreign journalists and clearly deserved credit for their work, they may choose not to get public credit because they do not feel like it is safe for them and/or their families. As many of the fixers explained, after the reporter goes home, the fixer is the person who remains on the ground. George Packer’s (2009) pivotal piece “It’s Always the Fixer Who Dies” details the way in which security and safety are shaped by the unequal relationships between fixers and foreign journalists:
In Iraq and Afghanistan and a growing number of other places, the foreign correspondent would be a target with or without the fixer, but the fixer is a target because he or she is with the foreign correspondent. Both are considered spies, but one is only an infidel, while the other is something worse—an apostate, a traitor.
(Myers, in Packer, 2009)
That said, although many of the journalists focus on issues of the fixer’s physical security, this is often not the primary concern of the fixers. Research, as well as fixer’s forums, notes that if a fixer feels a job is unsafe then the fixer warns the journalist—and more often than not the journalist will listen to the fixer and change the plans. If the journalist insists, the fixer will not take the job or, if he or she does, will ask not to receive public credit; this is particularly true for fixers, both male and female, with children.3
Although the roles and responsibilities of fixers are context specific and change based on the individual relationships they build with journalists, what is clear is that “fixing” is a job in which people are paid for their work. This means that there is an employer–employee nature to the relationships between a fixer and a journalist, and also that money is an inherent source of tension between these two parties.
Before discussing how these tensions actually play out in the field, it is worth painting a picture of what this employment relationship actually looks like. For this, we can draw on Bossone (2014) and Murrell (2010), who both discuss the precariousness of labor conditions for fixers, noting that in most cases relationships are sealed with a handshake and by the journalist’s word of honor, and are rarely formalized through a written contract. This precariousness is a source of tension for fixers, who rarely rely on fixing as their primary occupation or source of income. According to Plaut and Klein (2019), 75% of fixers state they have another profession, revealing that fixing is only a minor or moderate source of their income. This explains why fixers often have multiple professional identities, and shows that they are aware of the fluid, perhaps even fickle, financial nature of working within the foreign correspondent model of global journalism (Stokes, 2015). In this context, it is also worth mentioning that our research also indicated that payment is the primary point of concern for fixers, who must sometimes wait months before receiving payments from foreign bureaus. This pattern can also be seen in websites and Facebook groups such as “Vulture Club” and “I Need a Fixer!,” which are focused on bringing together fixers and journalists and in which some of the most common threads/discussions focus on reviewing the honesty, ease, and reliability of getting paid by the journalist or bureau.
Even though timely payment of wages is the largest point of conflict between journalists and fixers, it is also worth mentioning that fixers’ wages do tend to be higher than the local average (Murrell, 2010; Paterson, Andresen, & Hoxha, 2012). This creates a rather interesting dynamic for fixers, which could potentially have implications on global reporting—implications that are discussed at length in the following section.
Implications for Global Reporting
The collapse of media economic models and the closure of foreign bureaus around the world have had a profound impact on global journalism (Lewis, 2010; Murrell, 2010). Gone are the days in which it was common practice for correspondents to be stationed in a foreign bureau for years, gathering knowledge on the local customs, languages, and contexts of a place before reporting on it. Instead, the model of parachute journalism has taken its place, emerging as the most economically feasible way of doing global journalism. In this model, established foreign correspondents and an increasing number of independent freelancers (Witchel, 2004) “drop” into a place for a short period of time, with the hopes of reporting their stories. This model relies heavily on fixers, who were traditionally employed to help foreign correspondents as drivers and translators, but who today are being given a growing number of responsibilities, including securing interviews, providing context, and doing some of the reporting themselves. This shift has led to an increasing number of tensions, which are heightened by the fact that they occur within a context in which the journalists who hire fixers not only have less money and security but also, perhaps, less regulation and oversight—all of which help put fixers in positions of vulnerability.
In order to analyze the implications of these tensions on global journalism, two things must be taken into consideration: first, as Fairclough (1992) and Ward (2013) suggest, journalism processes affect journalism products and the truth they construct; and second, structural forces and unequal power dynamics govern global journalism.
Taking these factors into consideration, this article has thus far sought to map the current trends that shape the process of fixing within current mainstream models of global journalism. Thus, the question left to answer is whether these two factors, and the inherent tensions they produce, shape the ways in which fixing is done and subsequently how fixers operate. This is an important question to answer, as it in turn influences the processes and outcomes of global journalism, which can consequently have tangible political, policy, and military implications (Strömbäck, 2005; Strömbäck, Shehata, & Dimitrova, 2008).
To begin with, it is worth repeating that by merely participating in the process of creating a global journalism story, fixers are already shaping the way in which a story is framed. This is the case whenever a fixer conducts interviews, chooses subjects, scouts a location, and provides translation services for a foreign journalist. By merely participating in these tasks—many of which have an editorial effect—fixers are impacting global journalism (Witchel, 2004).
This impact occurs even though most foreign journalists choose to ignore it. In what stands out as a fascinating set of findings from the Global Reporting Centre’s survey (n.d.), fixers and journalists experience the realities of “fixing” differently and often have radically different perspectives regarding the amount of editorial influence that fixers have on global journalism. For instance, in the Global Reporting Centre survey, although 38% of journalists said they never relied on fixers for editorial guidance, 45% of fixers said journalists always relied on them for editorial guidance. In addition, 78% of fixers reported questioning or challenging the editorial focus of a piece, whereas only 44% of journalists reported being questioned/challenged by fixers. And only half of journalists believe they were corrected by a fixer, whereas fixers report having done so 80% of the time (Plaut & Klein, 2019).
This begs that question as to why journalists fail to acknowledge, or choose to overlook, the fixer’s impact on the editorial content of a piece. As feminist media scholar Barbie Zelizer (2004) noted (as well as challenged the correctness of the concept), a journalist’s belief in the “God’s eye view” on the world often leads to less critical and accurate reporting. Arrogance aside, the motives behind these discrepancies must be understood within the unequal power dynamics mentioned earlier, which are represented in tensions over credit, safety, and salaries/employment. When this context is taken into account and when it is placed within a theoretical framework governed by a neocolonial relationship, it becomes easier to understand why fixers claim to feel forced to shape stories in ways that allow foreign journalists to maintain their illusion of individualism and power (Plaut & Klein, 2019). Because fixers are only viewed as tools by foreign journalists looking to find their story, some of whom claim that receiving editorial guidance from a fixer would be an affront to their journalistic integrity (Plaut & Klein, 2019), fixers are often not given the credit they deserve, even though they are constantly engaged in framing the journalist’s reality. In fact, a number of fixers interviewed by Plaut and Klein (2019) took pride in their depth and breadth of contacts, noting that pairing up such connections to the needs of the story is what makes them “a good fixer.” Thus, the fact that they can sift through their contacts and offer a selection of sources inherently influences editorial content. This is where postcolonial and feminist theory is quite useful: although fixers recognize and operate within uneven power dynamics, they are not without agency.
Of course, there are a number of other ways in which the inherent tension that dominates the journalist–fixer relationship influences global journalism. One such example is presented in Paterson et al. (2012). This piece, which discusses the international coverage of the war in Kosovo, speaks about the socioeconomic realities of fixing, recalling how the local journalists at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communication were recruited by international journalists for the weekend in which Kosovo declared its independence. During that short period of time, these local journalists became “fixers.” This example from Kosovo is illustrative: although a few individuals were able to earn a more livable wage, what was lost? “This became a dilemma for several of them: they knew those three to four days of working as a fixer would give them between one and two months’ salary relative to their earnings from local media outlets” (Paterson et al., 2012, p. 111). How did their participation as fixers—working with international journalists to assist in creating “a story” of Kosovo’s independence for a global audience—shape the global story, policy, and politics? Perhaps more importantly, what stories and perspectives were never heard because these journalists were fixing rather than working for domestic outlets and serving local audiences?
Fixing Fixers: Innovative Approaches to Global Journalism
Given the current situation in global journalism, and taking into consideration the discrepancies that continue to shape the journalist–fixer relationship, a number of organizations have decided to change the way they work with fixers. One innovative approach has been the creation of guidelines, including safety codes, which lay out how fixers should be treated by news organizations that employ them. Notable examples here include the Dart Center (2015) and the International News Safety Institute (INSI) (n.d.), both of which have written guidelines that state that news organizations should award fixers the same rights (including paper contracts and insurance) given to their own staff.
Although these manuals are meant to provide some assurances to fixers, they don’t solve the tense power dynamics that still govern the imbalanced relationship between journalists and fixers. That is why, in recent years, some alternative journalistic models, mostly through nonprofit organizations, have begun piloting alternatives to the current model of global journalism. In order to so, these organizations are using other forms of global journalism that allow for more “shoulder-to-shoulder” relationships between the local and foreign journalist (Global Reporting Centre, n.d.; Stokes, 2015 in Field Guide 2017).
These organizations are experimenting with a variety of approaches to global reporting that challenge the fixer–correspondent model altogether. The U.S. nonprofit Round Earth Media, for example, pairs an American reporter with a local journalist, but gives them both equal editorial credit, with no one relegated to the “fixer” role (Stokes, 2015). The Global Reporting Centre, with which both authors of this article are affiliated, has fostered “empowerment journalism,” in which editors work with local storytellers to help them tell their own stories from their own perspectives, without the editorial imprint of a foreign correspondent.
Another organization piloting an alternative model of global journalism is Syria: Direct, a nonprofit based out of Jordan, which has trained more than 100 Syrians to do reporting in their own country and share stories with the world that foreign reporters simply cannot access (Tadros & Schuster, 2017). It was founded by longtime CBS News fixer and producer Amjad Tadros, who saw the editorial need to give Syrians a way to tell their stories, and also felt it was the right time to elevate locals beyond the subservient fixer role. This is a model that fixers themselves often vouch for, as can be seen in Bossone (2014), Plaut and Klein (2019), and Stokes (2015 in Field Guide 2017).
So why should we, as concerned people and consumers of global journalism, care about the relationship between fixers and journalists? Fixing—as a process within global journalism—is both a result and a continuation of unequal power: not just between the journalist and the fixer but also within global media practices and the landscape as a whole. In other words, how a story is made frames the story itself, influencing political and policy decisions, which in turn influence the dominant narratives of truth. “The story” ends up upholding existing structures and dynamics of power (Fairclough, 1995). Thus, by laying bare the role of fixers and the practice of fixing, we hope to suggest ways of better understanding and producing global journalism itself.
This article would not have been possible without the excellent research assistance and editing of Peter Mothe. The Global Reporting Centre’s “Fixing the Journalist-Fixer Relationship,” from which much of the original material is derived, was funded by the Canadian Media Research Council and benefited from the research assistance of Olivier Musafiri and Ashley Nicholson. The visual representation was created by Sharon Nadeem.
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(2.) Increasingly, some nonprofit organizations such as Global Reporting Centre, Round Earth Media, and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, as well as funders like the MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Foundation, and IREX, have sought to create new models and practices of partnership—journalism that encourages and recognizes local talent and collaboration in crafting international stories. However, no matter how innovative and promising such media outlets are, they are still very much the exception in mainstream news production.
(3.) In these cases, although fixers don’t want public credit, they often want their work to be known within the media organization for future employment opportunities.