A major factor influencing what gets covered is the daily peril facing the journalists and their staffs.
“Circumstances are so dangerous for American journalists,” a newspaper reporter responded, “that almost nothing can be reported in an ‘excellent’ fashion.”
“It has to be one of the most challenging countries to operate in,” wrote another print journalist. “From the lack of movement, the countless inhibiting factors, it’s constantly about trying to best put together the pieces of an inexplicable, intricate puzzle when you don’t have all the pieces ….”
The problem, journalists said, is often that many of the pieces lie in places too dangerous to reach.
Virtually all of the journalists assigned to Iraq live in Baghdad, yet the vast majority, 87%, consider at least half the city too dangerous for a Western journalist to travel in.
And nearly one in five (18%) say that during their most recent stay the entire city was too dangerous for travel.
Virtually all the American news organizations rely on local Iraqi staffers, who go far beyond the role journalists traditionally expected of a “fixer” or a stringer.
A fixer is the person a visiting reporter might hire by the day or the week to arrange appointments, to translate and to “fix” whatever the reporter couldn’t efficiently or safely do himself. In many countries, news organizations and correspondents also hire local reporters as stringers, part-time contributors who do occasional reporting and writing.
In Iraq, local staffers fill the role of reporters, writers, translators. They are the people who know whether a Western journalist can safely visit a given destination, how best to travel there and who might be best to interview. But more often then not, these Iraqis are doing the reporting themselves.
Six out of ten (63%) of the journalists surveyed say that Iraqis staffers do all or most of the street reporting outside the Green Zone.
For these Iraqis, journalists say, the risks of telling the story are even higher than they are for their Western employers. A quarter (25%) of all print outlets using Iraqis said these local staff are subject to daily intimidation and its even more (40%) for broadcast outlets.
Fully 62% of those surveyed report that threats or assaults against their Iraqi staffers occur at least several times a month; in some bureaus, they occur several times a week or even daily. “Our problems pale beside those of our Iraqi colleagues, who face extraordinary chances of death each day,” a bureau chief emphasized. “Few of us are as brave as them.”
And the threats are not idle.
A majority of those surveyed using Iraqi staff (57%)–representing a 58% of the news outlets involved–also report that at least one of these staffers have been kidnapped or murdered within the last 12 months. This includes every wire organization, every broadcast outlet and a third (33%) of the print outlets.1
“There have been several kidnappings,” recounted a newspaper correspondent, recounting the losses within his bureau. “Two of our Iraqi staff members have been murdered.”
“One kidnapping, unresolved; five local staff killed,” said another bureau chief.
As a consequence, the vast majority of journalists (nearly 90%) say their Iraqi staff must work essentially undercover, without any tools of newsgathering such as notebooks or cameras that might identify them as journalists.
“In my experience, most Iraqi staffers working for foreign news organizations keep their jobs secret from neighbors, relatives, even their close families,” the bureau chief of a print organization offered. “They often invent other jobs as cover stories. Few people working in Iraq as Iraqi journalists want to be identified with western agencies directly, unless they are living full time in the Green Zone, or in a security compound of some kind.”
These dangers, journalists worry, come at a cost. A sizable number of the journalists surveyed worry the threats and inability to bring their tools or identify themselves affects the quality of the reporting. Almost half (44%) say that this constant intimidation impacts “a great deal” the ability of local staff to fully report or tell the story.
And given these threats, and their reliance on local staff, a sizable number of those surveyed, 67%, are at least somewhat concerned about the accuracy and completeness of what they know.
More than one-in-five (21%) say they are “very worried” about the limitations on their knowledge.
“The pressure of living and working in Baghdad is unbelievable at times,” a print bureau chief explained. “It can be very stressful, especially if you are responsible for the safety and security of a lot of people like I am. That said, the greatest privilege I have had in my career so far is to have worked with my Iraqi staff – a group of very dedicated and brave men and women.”
The relationships forged with these Iraqi staffers were described in terms that often made them sound unusual and intense. “It often feels like a teacher student relationship; we teach them about journalism, and they teach us about Iraq,” one newspaper reporter wrote
1. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 30 Iraqi journalists were killed in 2006. Another 29 have been killed in the first 11 months of 2007, including six Iraqis working for Western news organizations. For statistics from 2006, see http://www.cpj.org/killed/killed06.html#iraq. For 2007 statistics, see http://www.cpj.org/killed/killed07.html#iraq.