The recent death of ‘fixer’ Oleksandra Kuvshynova in Ukraine should remind us of the importance – and the risks- of journalism’s unsung heroes.
Photo: A platform that makes foreign reporting a little easier. Photograph: Screen grab
18 March 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News
This report includes an article on the deaths of Oleksandra Kuvshynova and Pierre Zakrzewski in Ukraine from The Guardian, an overview of the risks of the job in a piece from The Conversation and two articles on the finer details on the job itself.
In journalism, a fixer is a local person who expedites the work of a correspondent working in a foreign country.Wikipedia
Two Fox News journalists – producer Oleksandra Kuvshynova and cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski – were killed in the attack outside Kyiv which injured correspondent Benjamin Hall, the US network and its journalists confirmed on Tuesday.
Fox News in a statement only announced the death of Zakrzewski, an Irish citizen. Ukrainian officials and Fox News reporters confirmed that Kuvshynova was also killed in the attack.
“RIP Pierre and Sasha,” the Fox News Pentagon correspondent, Lucas Tomlinson, wrote on Twitter, using a diminutive name for the producer, and sharing a recent picture of the two, smiling with Hall.
Zakrzewski, 55, and Kuvshynova, 24, died “as a result of artillery shelling by Russian troops in the north-eastern part of the village of Gorenka”, Ukrainian website kp.ua said.
The news follows the death in Ukraine on Sunday of Brent Renaud, an American film-maker, who was shot in an area near where the Fox journalists were attacked.
Fox News had announced Hall’s injury on Monday, the reporter “was injured while newsgathering outside of Kyiv in Ukraine”.
Fox News’ chief executive, Suzanne Scott, said: “Pierre was killed in Horenka, outside of Kyiv, Ukraine. Pierre was with Benjamin Hall yesterday … when their vehicle was struck by incoming fire.
“Pierre was a war zone photographer who covered nearly every international story for Fox News from Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria during his long tenure with us.
“His passion and talent as a journalist were unmatched. Based in London, Pierre had been working in Ukraine since February. His talents were fast and there wasn’t a role that he didn’t jump in to help with in the field – from photographer to engineer to editor to producer – and he did it all under immense pressure with tremendous skill.”
Fox News did not initially mention Kuvshynova’s death, but in a second statement later on Tuesday, said she had been working as a consultant for the channel.
It read: “She was incredibly talented and spent weeks working directly with our entire team, operating around the clock to make sure the world knew what was happening in her country.”
The statement described Kuvshynova as “hard-working, funny, kind and brave. Her dream was to connect people around the world and tell their stories, and she fulfilled that through her journalism.”
The statement added: “We held off on delivering this devastating news earlier today out of respect for her family whom we have been in touch with throughout.”
Yonat Friling, a Fox News field producer, tweeted: “In yesterday’s attack near Kyiv, we have lost a beautiful brave woman – Oleksandra Kuvshinova – Sasha. She loved music and she was funny and kind. she was 24 years old. She worked with our team for the past month and did a brilliant job. May her memory be a blessing.”
Trey Yingst, a Fox News foreign correspondent, tweeted a picture with Zakrzewski and said: “I don’t know what to say. Pierre was as good as they come. Selfless. Brave. Passionate. I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
Hall, who is British-American, remained in hospital on Tuesday. Ukrainian authorities said he had “lost part of his leg”. Fox News said it was still trying to gather details of the attack on its team.
“We have a minimal level of details right now,” Scott said in a memo to staff on Monday that did not mention Zakrzewski or Kuvshynova. “Ben is hospitalised and our teams on the ground are working to gather additional information as the situation quickly unfolds.
“The safety of our entire team of journalists in Ukraine and the surrounding regions is our top priority and of the utmost importance. This is a stark reminder for all journalists who are putting their lives on the line every day to deliver the news from the war zone.”
On Sunday, Ukrainian authorities said Renaud, an award-winning film-maker, was killed by Russian forces in Irpin, outside Kyiv. An American photographer, Juan Arredondo, was wounded.
17 March 2022 | Tim Luckhurst | The Conversation
Oleksandra Kushynova died on March 14 in the village of Horenka north of Kyiv when the vehicle in which she was travelling was hit by incoming fire killing her and Irish cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski, as well as wounding Fox correspondent Benjamin Hall. Kushynova was 24 years old and had been working as a “fixer” for Fox News for a month. Fox News national security correspondent, Jennifer Griffin, described her as “bright light and talented”.
Many journalists, particularly broadcasters covering foreign conflicts for international news organisations, have reason to be intensely grateful to fixers like Kushynova. These locally hired staff help reporters, producers and correspondents to identify stories, find sources, negotiate local bureaucracy and – crucially – translate unfamiliar languages and dialects. Often, they keep the incoming journalists safe, sometimes at great risk to themselves.
Some fixers – like Kushynova – are local journalists who lack the contacts to sell their work abroad. Others are passionate idealists determined to promote a cause or country. Almost all are capable of combining the role of translator with that of expert local guide. For many fixers, the arrival in their country of international journalists hungry for compelling stories is a golden opportunity to work with prestigious organisations.
No matter what their motivation, they are always low in a news team’s pecking order and often less well paid than those they help. The American media scholar Lindsay Palmer describes fixers as occupying “one of the lowest ranks in the hierarchy of international news”.
After witnessing the death of fixer Abed Takoush in 2009 Sam Kiley of CNN wrote about fixers thus:
The reality is that without a worldwide network of local freelance drivers, translators and general all-round fixers, there would be a lot of dead journalists, and pretty soon no foreign news at all. Any nitwit, and I am living proof, can be a ‘war correspondent’ if they are lucky enough to come across a great fixer.
Translators, helpers and guides
Kiley’s candour coincides with elements of my own experience. My first involvement in conflict reporting came during the Romanian Revolution in December 1989. I was a producer on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. Together with my colleague, reporter Allan Little, I flew to Belgrade in neighbouring Serbia and drove into Romania in a hired car.
In the western city of Timisoara, cradle of the revolution, we met Viorel Buligan, a young English speaker. His skills as a translator and guide were invaluable. Without him, I would not have found the primitive casualty ward in which the victims of fighting with the notorious Securitate secret police were being treated. I recall that our entirely informal means of remuneration involved American cigarettes and British currency.
When we arrived on Christmas Eve 1989, some supporters of the Ceausescu regime were still active. I have often wondered what risks Buligan took with his own safety in order to help us.
Subsequently, when I joined the BBC foreign news team covering the Gulf War of 1991, a young bilingual Palestinian resident of Kuwait City, Walid Abu Zeid became my fixer. He guided, translated and suggested many story ideas that could not have occurred to me. He also kept the Toyota Land Cruiser in which we travelled from Kuwait to Southern Iraq stocked with essential supplies. My colleagues and I took credit for the stories.
Risk and reward
Fixers such as Kushynova make possible connections between their countries or localities and international audiences. They provide the language skills and local expertise that allow visiting journalists to tell stories that will make impressions at home.
They may be, often are – like Kushynova is reported to have been – aspiring correspondents themselves. Often they lack neither expertise nor insight, only professional status. In some cases, they may also work without the hazardous environment training and insurance cover that protects the international reporters and correspondents with whom they work.
Their work connects the global with the local. It is crucial – but for the fixers, it may also be frustrating. Nuances of local politics and culture that may be intrinsic to getting a full understanding of a story are sometimes ignored by international correspondents determined to please editors and audiences at home. Almost always the fixers remain in their home country when the international news caravan moves on. Their expertise is specific to their location. Some fixers may face criticism or worse in their home countries when their foreign employers leave to cover news elsewhere.
In 2016 and 2017, the Global Reporting Centre conducted a survey about the relationship between correspondents and fixers. More than 450 journalists from 70 countries contributed. The findings characterised the arrangement as one in which “a deep-pocketed foreign reporter” hires a local journalist in “an often-poorer country, to do his or her bidding”. The power dynamic of the relationship certainly rests with the correspondent – and ethical correspondents may recognise a problem while privately acknowledging that neither they nor their employer has any clear incentive to solve it.
Oleksandra Kushynova was not the first brave and dedicated fixer to die doing vital work that helped explain her country’s plight to the world. I fear it is forlorn to hope that she will be the last. But she should be remembered as not only bright and brilliant – but also as a member of a luckless tribe that deserves greater reward and recognition than it has ever received.
25 March 2021 | DELPHINE BOUSQUET | JNET
It usually starts with a simple email or WhatsApp message: “I’m a journalist, and I got your contact information from so-and-so. I’m traveling to your country and am looking for a fixer.”
Although these requests have been less common over the past year due to travel restrictions during COVID-19, they will certainly increase in frequency as the world rebounds from the pandemic.
This article examines the role a fixer plays to assist reporting efforts, and the challenges that come with it.
The fixer’s role
A fixer is someone that a journalist or reporting team might hire to accompany them when they travel to a new location for their work. Fixers are closely familiar with the local customs and practices, are well-versed in relevant issues, and they might also serve as translators. When fixers are journalists themselves, they can take on even more work, too.
Fixers take into account the type of outlet conducting the reporting, whether it be radio, TV or print, for example. They also consider the nature of the reporting: is it hard news, a magazine feature or a documentary film, among other formats? Understanding the local context is critical, as well: for instance, is the location in a conflict zone?
“It’s a huge human and editorial investment,” said Marie Naudascher, a French journalist and fixer based in Brazil. “Either the journalist who solicits us has a precise idea for a story and we provide [them] with contacts from our address book, or their idea is more general and we give them the story to tell.”
Emmanuelle Sodji, a Togolese video reporter who investigated the trafficking of Tramadol in West Africa, confirmed this. “The quality of the story depends on [the fixer]. [They] find the right characters and the right sequences.” The fixer also coordinates logistics, such as the vehicle, driver, translator, and catering, files needed authorization requests and arranges itineraries.
The journalists or the reporting team travel often only for a limited time, and with a defined budget, so everything must be planned out. “There can be no problems; [fixers] should have a plan B and a plan C. [They] have to be a real Swiss Army knife,” said Naudascher.
Being able to adapt and react is key for fixers. It’s also essential to understand the journalists’ requirements before they arrive, and to agree on the work that is expected.
New experiences and travel
While the pay can be attractive, it isn’t a fixer’s primary motivation.
“Being with experienced reporters allowed me to see other ways of working. I learned a lot and made friends,” said Rania Massoud, a journalist who used to work for L’Orient Le Jour. Her work as a fixer has enabled her to travel throughout Lebanon, from refugee camps to seaside villages.
Naudascher also pointed to the unique experiences she has had as a fixer. “I went to the Amazon for a story on pink dolphins, which I wouldn’t have done otherwise,” she said.
Local issues and customs
Prejudices and cultural differences can create tension on a reporting trip. The journalists requesting assistance from fixers will likely be less familiar with the local subjects and context. “The hardest thing is to make them understand that the reality on the ground is different,” said Sodji.
Sodji highlighted cultural challenges that she has helped reporters navigate in West Africa. “Our foreign colleagues do not always understand that here, you have to talk to people, to put them at ease and that many things are decided at the last moment.”
Fixers must reassure their clients — clients who may not understand local codes and customs, or may have preconceived notions. “This can be the most frustrating,” said Massoud. “I remember a colleague who thought she had to wear a hijab in Lebanon even though I didn’t.”
When dealing with sensitive, potentially dangerous reporting, fixers can be tasked with ensuring the team’s safety. Their own wellbeing may be threatened, too, after the story is published or broadcast. “You’re the local person. The interviewees have your phone number,” said Naudascher.
When assisting communication efforts, fixers may have to relay expectations between journalists and their reporting sources and subjects on the ground. If not done tactfully, this could negatively impact a network of sources that took the fixers years to build.
For example, Naudascher once had to resolve a misunderstanding with a local source who didn’t want their home security system documented in any video footage taken. “It was the first thing the cameraman filmed, yet I had given my word that it wouldn’t appear,” she said. Fortunately she resolved the situation, avoiding any adverse consequences.
Fixers usually work behind the scenes, and with no insurance or fixed salary. They are often paid in cash.
“That’s what fixing is — you don’t exist,” said Sodji. Meanwhile, Naudascher noted that she stopped working as a fixer because of a lack of status and recognition.
Still, fixers might sometimes be recognized, through a mention in the reporting credits, or in the byline as a journalist in their own right.
Without them, after all, the reporting likely wouldn’t have been possible.
Delphine Bousquet is a journalist, journalism instructor and a correspondent for multiple French media outlets in Benin. She was one of the winners of ICFJ’s Covering COVID reporting contest. She also works as a fixer.
This article was originally published by our French site. It was translated to English by Sedera Ranaivoarinosy.
How do journalists fix a fixer? How can correspondents sent abroad to report ensure that the person who will act as guide, interpreter and the source of local contacts has the necessary knowledge and experience?
Those are problems that a new website, WorldFixer, sets out to overcome by acting as a global database to link up journalists, producers and broadcasters with fixers.
It was created by two enterprising journalists, Mike Garrod and Will Lloyd George, who were concerned about the difficulties faced by correspondents who had suffered disastrous experiences with inadequate fixers.
“We saw a common need on both sides”, said Garrod. “We realised that by creating a register, journalists could hook up with the most appropriate fixer before they even arrived to start work.
“By coming to our site, reporters and producers can check on a fixers’ backgrounds and references, and will soon be able to read each other’s testimonies”.
The platform, which is free to use, was launched in February and now contains the names and details of 2,000 fixers. But Garrod and Lloyd George ensure that people who register are vetted. They must supply references and contacts. Then they are given a star rating based on how many times their information is corroborated.
Lloyd George, a freelance who has reported in foreign parts for the last eight years (having worked for the Guardian and BBC among others), said: “I quickly learned the value of having a reliable and skilled fixer by my side.
“Speaking to colleagues in the industry all across the globe I realised there was an urgent need for a reliable online database of fixers for media professionals”.
Garrod, who spent 15 years in broadcasting as a producer and director, often found himself working with inexperienced fixers. He said:
“Once, in Indonesia, I had a person who didn’t speak the right language and didn’t know his way around. With WorldFixer, I would have found an alternative”.
Although searching the site and contacting the featured fixers is free, WorldFixer does charge an agency fee to employers who request a specific service.
There is also a section on the site for fixers (and journalists) who, for security reasons, wish to remain anonymous. Their details are protected offline.
The site has already received a number of recommendations. Channel 4’s foreign correspondent, Jonathan Miller, calls it “a cleverly-conceived new tool for our industry… a news-network tool whose time has come”.
And Dan Snow, the BBC presenter, has referred to it as an “extremely valuable resource for making sure that your team get hooked up with the most appropriate fixer”.