Why Doesn’t Anyone Train Fixers?

Fixers are a vital part of the newsgathering process. They secure your access to a story, handle your logistics and act as a go-between when interviewing in a foreign language. The success of your project, as well as your personal safety, is directly placed in their hands but there is no other part of the industry where such a vital role is given to untrained, largely unverified individuals.

Writer Paul Theroux wrote “Most Travel, and certainly, the rewarding kind involves putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life” and never was this truer than in the fixer/journalist relationship. Therefore, why are there no training platforms out there, certifications or accreditations to ensure that the person you’re working with has at least a basic level of knowledge about the job, your organization’s ethical considerations or security?

The reality is that you can literally pick someone off the street, anywhere in the world and put them on the payroll if you believe they will be of use. Whilst it’s been this way ever since human travel existed is it really aligned to the modern news business with its sensibilities towards risk assessment and responsible practice? In the most base case you might be putting your personal security at risk but on a wider point, you are also jeopardizing the integrity of your work and the impact it might have on real issues.

Journalists have access to numerous training material and courses in order to go as deep into the academic or practical side as they like but to date, there is no comprehensive initiative aimed at the locals they worked with. At World Fixer we’ve tried to encourage support for a free training platform from various news outlets but the truth is that the appetite isn’t really there amongst the ones we approached. From their side, it seems that the issue isn’t really a problem but for anyone with experience on the ground this simply isn’t true.

This mentality also doesn’t take into account the growing percentage of freelance journalists who contribute to their output and may not necessarily report a lot of the issues they face. As staff jobs dwindle and the independent correspondent role balloons the industry is essentially pushing young (and established) journalists into the field to fend for themselves with little effort spent on the kinds of networks that could help them succeed.

I believe that the kind of information you’d promote through training covers the core issues associated with a journalist’s work. These are:

Standards & Ethics in Journalism

This would provide an insight into the role of media within society and the guidelines by which it must operate in order to produce honest, reliable output. It would include commentary on issues such as professional conduct, balanced assessment, ethical content acquisition and information verification.

Interview techniques & Information Gathering

In the case of no common language, a fixer is the link between a journalist or producer and his subject. It’s important that they can lead the interview to get the right information and relay it clearly and accurately taking into account cultural references and insinuation. How many times has a journalist been in the middle of an interview and felt that they are being told what the person thinks they want to hear – not the actual facts? A solid understanding of the use of interviews and the importance of accuracy is surely invaluable? Whilst interview techniques are an advanced skill there are many guidelines that can be given to encourage the fixer to clearly understand the question and push for a relevant answer.

Outside of interview techniques is information gathering – a fixer using his/her network to source information independently. Again a firm foundation in how to conduct that effectively, ethically & then communicate it clearly are necessary skills.

Risk assessment

This section could be as much a resource as a training tool. Creating clear, downloadable templates which can be understood by those with simple English is the first aspect. The more important aspect would be to teach the fixer to understand that what might not constitute an inherent risk to them may be one for a foreign professional. There are many risks a local might not consider merely because they are surrounded by the every day and they need to open their mind a little to the idea that these are something their client would at least want to consider before going into an area. They need to understand the language of risk assessment forms and familiarise with the concerns of editors, producers, and journalists.

Costs & Budgeting

Projects and working relationships rely on accurate information related to costs and budgeting. At World Fixer around 80% of disputes are centered around misunderstanding from either side related to this. Culturally there can be some discrepancy between issues such as estimated costs and an accurate quote, hidden extras and overtime. Ultimately its something that can be solved with contracts, paper trails, and proper conversations but journalism isn’t excellent at this, especially in the heat of the moment on the ground.

Its necessary to try and educate local fixers to clearly communicate when it comes to finances and take equal responsibility to ensure its understood.

Digital Security

Digital security is not only relevant in a hostile environment setting, all media production demands that employees keep information about their project away from social media or other forms of online publications. This section would explain its importance and gives useful tips for improving digital security in all its forms, providing links to more in-depth resources currently available online.

I believe that armed with a basic understanding of the above, not only would fixers have the tools to further their skills and knowledge about the job but also give a basic grounding to new fixers looking to package their existing capabilities in a way a foreign journalist might see the value. From the journalist’s side, they could have some assurance that the person they hire understands how they work and can conduct themselves in a professional way that doesn’t compromise them or their project.

This training is well suited as an online platform, partly because it would have the potential to reach a larger section of the fixer population, it can be distributed for free and completed quickly if a journalist hires someone in a hurry. A platform could easily generate codes on completion for journalists and news desks to verify when hiring and it could be added to or updated whenever needed.

The costs for such a platform are nominal but in order to gain meaningful traction amongst the fixing population, it has to be something ‘from’ the industry, not aimed at it. By this, I mean that any product that’s made must have the endorsement of several major broadcasters and news outlets for it to be taken seriously enough for everyone to complete it. This doesn’t mean it should be mandatory but it should at least be desired and respected. Sadly, until the established industry accepts the real value in this it may only remain a beta on our laptop.

World Fixer is a database of media fixers and facilitators, with a membership of nearly 7000 globally they strive to make good fixers easier to find and improve working practices. They believe that giving these dynamic individuals a platform to connect with the industry we can raise standards and create transparency.

Mike Garrod previously worked for twenty years in documentary, current affairs and TV in the UK before setting up World Fixer. Ranging from hostile environment to factual entertainment he’s filmed in over 35 countries and worked with some of the best local professionals out there.
If you want to learn more about how you can be involved with the International Community, you can join SPJ International on Facebook. If you are a journalist or a fixer that would like to connect with other members of the SPJ International Community, join here

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