Fixing Stories: The Fixer/Reporter Relationship
On 28 March, the Frontline Club hosted a panel, Fixing Stories, on local fixers, producers, and interpreters who assist foreign news organizations. Speakers with extensive experience on both sides of the fixer-reporter relationship in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East included Ukrainian journalist and producer Anton Skyba, former foreign correspondent and novelist Charlotte Eagar, Polish correspondent, broadcast producer, and fixer Magdalena Chodownik, and Istanbul-based photojournalist Bradley Secker.
The group discussed news organizations’ responsibilities to credit and protect their local contributors, the expertise involved in fixing and field producing, the problems of both foreign and local journalists imposing their own narratives and biases on reporting, and the potential for transnational collaboration to overcome those problems. With their range of work across different media, panelists also commented on how the picture of local-foreign partnership varies among print, photo, and video journalism. Audience members included journalists who commented on their own professional experiences and asked about the costs and benefits of anonymity, differences for fixers between working with freelance reporters and with well-resourced news organizations, and the complexities of linguistic translation.
Sociologist Noah Amir Arjomand, a fellow at Indiana University and the Center for International Media Assistance and the author of the recent book Fixing Stories: Local Newsmaking and International Media in Turkey and Syria, moderated the conversation. Dr. Arjomand has also written a piece reflecting on the recent death of a Ukrainian fixer and what it reveals about journalism’s hidden inequalities, which is included below:
On March 14, Fox News announced that cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski had been killed and correspondent Benjamin Hall injured by incoming fire on the outskirts of Kyiv. Among local journalists, however, word spread that a third team member had also lost her life: Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova, a 24-year-old Ukrainian national.
Long-simmering tensions boiled to the surface over international news organizations’ treatment of local “fixers” like Kuvshynova. These journalists provide essential labor in gaining access to sources, providing research, and making sense of events — but are often treated as second-class citizens within the profession.
Ukrainian journalist Anton Skyba was outraged that it seemed Fox News was commemorating Kuvshynova’s foreign colleagues while ignoring his compatriot. He and others obtained an image of Kuvshynova’s Fox News press card and evidence that she represented the channel as a producer in official communications. After local reports about Kuvshynova, Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott offered a new statement mourning her death and acknowledged that she was “helping our crews navigate Kyiv and the surrounding area while gathering information and speaking to sources,” adding, “We held off on delivering this devastating news earlier today out of respect for her family.”
Skyba remains skeptical of this explanation. For him, the channel’s initial failure to recognize Kuvshynova was emblematic of a broader “colonial approach” of too many foreign media organizations in Ukraine who treat their local contributors as inferiors and even expendables. Skyba complained that outlets pay Ukrainians less and trust foreign journalists more to set the news agenda and frame stories: “They believe that they know the country better… they know better the ways the story should be cooked. They are ignoring local and cultural context.”
The very terminology for local news contributors is fraught with controversy. Fox News’s statement referred to Kuvshynova with the ambiguous appellation “consultant.” Most journalists described her as a “fixer, ” though others pushed back. Diversity advocate Marcus Ryder tweeted, “They are not ‘fixers’ they are journalists. They are not ‘fixers’ they are production managers. They are not ‘fixers’ they are producers. RIP Oleksandra Kuvshynova.” Wall Street Journal editor Anthony DeRosa asked, “Can we also stop using ‘fixer’ as the way we refer to these essential journalists?” Skyba himself hates being called a fixer when he does more than just share contacts; when he helps to develop a news story, conducts interviews, and contributes expert political knowledge, he expects to be credited with the more professional title “producer.”
These labels matter in moral and material ways, signifying or refusing recognition of news contributors’ professionalism and their employers’ obligations toward them. Labeling local journalists as “fixers” can be “a way for media organizations to escape responsibility,” Skyba told me, to signal that their contributions are minor and informal.
In Kuvshynova’s case, Skyba and others worried that Fox News’ initial non-recognition would translate to inattention to her survivors, which is why they scrambled to collect evidence that she was an integral member of the team. The Kyiv-based nonprofit Institute for Mass Information (IMI) has since hired lawyers in the US and Ukraine to help ensure that Fox News provides appropriate support to her family, representative Iryna Zemlyana told me.
At the heart of controversies about the status of journalists like Kuvshynova is what I call the Fixer’s Paradox: Local connections are both their greatest asset and their greatest liability. They convince sources to talk, arrange logistics and security, and explain contexts and translate meaning. Foreign colleagues who lack their range of local knowledge and contacts could not operate effectively without them. News organizations would have to rely on propagandistic official narratives or parrot received wisdom (as they often do nonetheless, despite the efforts of fixers and reporters on the ground).
Yet fixers’ local ties can also taint them in the eyes of their foreign employers as more activist than professional, not objective enough to be trusted with editorial decisions or respected as full peers. Concerns about fixers’ biases or blind spots can be justified, but all too often, foreign reporters and editors dismiss local colleagues’ perspectives to protect their own privileged control over news stories and insulate their own subjective biases from interrogation.
For his part, Skyba sees progress in de-colonizing journalism and earning the respect of international news organizations. Ukrainian journalists, who have long navigated combat zones and disinformation campaigns and received training from organizations like the IMI, are proving themselves better prepared to cover the full-scale Russian invasion than foreign newcomers, he told me. “We are demanding and fighting every day for them to recognize us more… This is the recognition [earned] by risking our lives, by decision-making, by showing the knowledge that a local journalist brings to the field.”
by Noah Arjomand
Fellow for the Centre for International Media Assistance (CIMA)
Noah is a sociologist and author of the new book Fixing Stories: Local Newsmaking and International Media in Turkey and Syria.