A response to criticism of efforts to protect freelance journalists.

By Cliff Lonsdale

Amara McLaughlin is to be applauded for turning attention to the issue of protection for freelance journalists, but there are troubling issues with her piece as published. Since this was a j-school paper, edited down but not fact-checked or reviewed for content by J-Source, it is difficult to be sure where some of the problems originate. Perhaps J-Source could be more transparent when presenting students’ class-work, so that readers can distinguish it from commissioned pieces that have been fully reviewed by its staff?

In the piece as presented, the writer appears to dismiss hazardous environment training courses as inadequate, on the strength of a single quote from a person whose news organization doesn’t send its employees on them, but provides shorter and cheaper in-house training instead. 

The report mentions only one of at least nine available options for freelancers seeking war zone insurance, the one offered through Reporters Without Borders. Without explanation, the story says that Canadians aren’t eligible for some of the coverage offered. It doesn’t mention that the coverage is backed by a Canadian insurance company, which makes that exception curious, at least. The piece also doesn’t mention that the selected policy applies only to reporters who are embedded, which is not a common occurrence for freelancers. Other, more relevant examples were readily available. 

Freelancers who want a more factual and practical review of insurance options would do well to consult this resource from the Rory Peck Trust, the world leader in the field of freelance protection. The Trust wasn’t mentioned in the published piece, either. 

The article says of the Global Safety Principles and Practices declaration: “Until mid-April, there were no Canadian signatories. The first to endorse the recommendation (sic) was the Ontario-based Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.” In fact, the Forum endorsed the declaration as soon as it was published in February. 

The Forum is described as Ontario-based, but it is a federally-registered educational charity with directors and members from across the country. So it is Ontario-based in much the same way as CBC or The Canadian Press. Its last public event, as it happens, was held in Calgary and the one before that in Halifax. 

Although it mentioned the Forum in passing, the piece did not include the most salient fact about it as far as the subject is concerned—that it runs an annual bursary competition, which last year helped to send eight freelancers working for Canadian media on hazardous environment training courses, including one established by the Columbia Journalism School. (The Forum Freelance Fund’s 2015 competition for bursaries opens May 15.) 

The Forum also collates from around the world a wide variety of material on physical and emotional issues of interest to freelance and staff journalists alike, through its website and its Facebook group, much of the material relating to safety. Many freelancers in Canada and elsewhere follow the Facebook page and have commented on its usefulness.

In addition to the safety training bursaries offered by the Forum Freelance Fund, specifically for Canadian freelancers and freelancers of other nationalities who file for Canadian media, many more safety bursaries for freelancers are provided internationally by the Rory Peck Trust, with which the Forum works in close co-operation. 

The Trust also has an exceptional array of practical resources available free to freelancers everywhere, from risk assessment procedures to proof-of-life documentation and much more besides. It would have been helpful, as well as more factual, if these had been included in the piece that was published.

To expect the Global Safety Principles and Practices declaration to solve freelancers’ problems in short order is, of course, unrealistic. Freelancers face enormous difficulties. Minimizing or overlooking efforts to do something about them, however, is unfortunate. 

Cliff Lonsdale is president of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. He also teaches international reporting at graduate level at Western University.