Colin Nagy | October 18, 2019

Why is this interesting? - The Fixer Edition

On foreign correspondents, local reporters, and the inequality of a lot of international journalism

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Colin here. Foreign reporting has long relied on so-called “fixers”: People on the ground that can apply local expertise, knowledge, sourcing, and cultural context to make a story (and the reporting of that story) better and more accurate. These fixers, sometimes reporters, well-networked people, translators, wheel-greasers, and dot connectors, have played a huge role in helping important stories get told, often in difficult or hostile environments when local support is needed. 

But there’s another side to the story of fixers, and that is deep-pocketed reporters dropping into an area that they know nothing about, and quickly tapping locals—often reporters with years of experience—and treating them as errand-runners. A piece by Priyanka Borpujari in CJR explains:

In April, Neha Dixit, a journalist in India, received an email from a professor at Northwestern University. The subject read, “Fixer needed.” The message: “My colleagues and I are working on a story about illegal organ trafficking in India and are in need of sources for the story. We were wondering if you could help us with finding sources and guiding us around Delhi?” Dixit was furious. In the following days, she received more emails from reporters, with similar subject lines: “Looking for fixer to report on India’s election.” In each case, the language was blunt and unsolicitous.

Dixit has been an investigative journalist for 13 years, publishing widely read stories on human rights violations and gender-based violence. In 2016, she won the Chameli Devi Jain Award—the highest honor given to female journalists in India—for exposing the trafficking of young tribal girls by Hindu fundamentalist groups. She occasionally coordinates reporting projects for a North American news broadcaster, but chooses to leave her byline out. “Their storytelling is different than the way I do my work,” Dixit says. “Since it is for an international audience, they try to simplify complex matters, and lose out on the nuance.” 

Why is this interesting? 

The piece raises an interesting point: Why not hire Dixit as a reporter, rather than as a fixer, which would likely lead to a better understanding of India’s complex realities? It would appear that bigger western news organizations want to drop in on a story without the background and expertise, and leverage local people without there being a balance of equals in the relationship. 

The piece explains

The difference between a correspondent and a “fixer” is not one of experience or qualification, but of geography. Local journalists hired as fixers by foreign journalists are often established reporters and can offer in-country expertise in the form of helpful contacts and language skills—and, again, may well have already covered the story in question. What they lack, in comparison with the correspondents and outlets paying for their services, is the big-name cachet that in the end only money can afford. In 2016 and 2017, the Global Reporting Centre surveyed more than 450 journalists from 70 countries on the relationship between correspondents and fixers, and characterized it as “a deep-pocketed foreign reporter hiring a local journalist in an often-poorer country, to do his or her bidding,” resulting in troubling power imbalances. More than half of the fixers surveyed said that they were frequently put in danger.

The notion of the foreign correspondent is not without some colonial overtones: The foreigner parachuted into an area to cover—and package up—poverty or conflict. The piece asserts that “The title ‘foreign correspondent’ has long been synonymous with whiteness, maleness, and imperialism—journalists fly in from North America, Europe, and Australia to cover the poverty and wars of the non-Western world.”

But as more outlets shutter their bureaus around the world, perhaps the opportunity here is to elevate some of these great local journalists to equal footing and commission and work with them as partners on the ground, not as a fixer sent out to do errands and the bidding, but as a trusted and important reporter to hyper-local knowledge and importantly, the cultural and political context. 

The current situation remains inequitable: “In the Global Reporting Centre survey, 60 percent of journalists stated that they never or rarely give fixers credit in their published work, though 86 percent of fixers said they would like for that to happen.” A new model is needed, one that balances the contributions of everyone involved with reporting the often difficult ground truth. There also needs to be ongoing coverage of slow-moving stories, told with nuance and subject matter expertise. The parachute model creates superficiality and plays to tired tropes: The dashing Western correspondent in the safari jacket, doing satellite standups from a rooftop and leaving the next day. (CJN)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

PS - Noah here. I’ve started a new company and we are looking for our first engineer and designer to join the team. If you are one of those or know anyone who is great, please share. Dinner’s on me at a restaurant of your choice if you help us find someone.

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