Pursuing a story in a foreign area can be complicated and dangerous. Enter “fixers,” local people who for years have been helping journalists and other visitors make arrangements during foreign assignments.
The duties of fixers vary by industry and project. In journalism, a fixer might be someone who knows a city well and can handle logistics, or the fixer might be more involved in the reporting process, even conducting interviews and shaping the interpretation of the piece.
Now a new organization is trying to use the web to make it easier for journalists and others to connect with the world of fixers. WorldFixer is a database that aims to connect fixers with any professionals more efficiently. The site enables potential employers to choose from a wider pool of fixers, a group that historically has been hired based on referrals by word of mouth. Fixers can list such information as skills they possess, languages they speak and previous people for whom they’ve worked so that people can identify the best person for a specific job based on experience. People who have previously worked with fixers can recommend them. For fixers who wish to remain anonymous on the website for privacy or other purposes, WorldFixer acts as a liaison between employers seeking specific skills and the fixers who might have them.
We talked with WorldFixer co-founder Mike Garrod, who has a background in TV and documentary filmmaking, about the journalist-fixer relationships, industry dangers and best practices for working with the often little-recognized world of fixers.
Why are fixers important in journalism, and how can they help in the reporting process?
Without fixers, we are basically just foreigners wandering around with expensive equipment. You can go into an area, you can know the story that you’re going to do, you can know roughly how to get there, but you’ll never be able to really get the nuances out of it (the assignment) without local knowledge; I’m talking here about the culture and the language. If you take the basic knowledge of the operation aside, you still need to understand the place, and you also need to be understood, you need to be trusted, and fixers can help with that.
Quite often, journalists can arrive on location with information that is out of date. They can arrive with information that is not completely accurate. Or they can arrive with no information at all. If you choose the right fixer for the type of job that you’re doing, you would like to think that this person either has the correct information, the up-to-date information, or they can get it for you.
Without fixers, we are basically just foreigners wandering around with expensive equipment.
To what extent do fixers’ perspectives influence stories?
If you go into the field with somebody who comes from the U.S., and you’re going somewhere in the Sahara in Africa to follow a story, it’s natural — already you’re going to come in with an idea of what the situation is from what you’ve heard. You may get there and find the situation is vastly different. Whatever conclusion you come to in your reporting is going to come through the lens of where you come from. And the local fixer might have an issue with that perspective. By and large, journalists are good at their jobs, and they are very good at getting this right and listening to their fixer. If they have an idea about a situation, you have a conversation with the fixer, and they say, “Well, that’s not exactly how it is.” It doesn’t necessarily mean the fixer is always right. A good journalist will be able to assimilate that information so that he or she gets closer to the truth.
What kinds of arrangements do journalists and fixers make?
It can be a case of a reason and request. What that means is somebody came to us and said, “We need a fixer to help us gain access to a former founding member of al-Qaeda in Jordan; we need somebody who knows how to get to them and can facilitate it.” As far as the agreement, they would’ve worked out a price, and then they would’ve gone around the necessary security checks that would’ve needed to be done to make sure that the people that they’re working with are aboveboard. That would be a fairly typical, if not sensational, example.
Another example could be, quite simply, I have a story I need to cover. I need you to get me there, translate for me, make them OK with my presence, and I’ll pay you to do that, and then you can translate so I can transcribe parts of it.
What are the dangers of being a fixer and of using fixers?
I think this is something that people on both sides need to be responsible about. On the fixer’s side, some people will offer to go and get stories because there’s money involved, and they need money, and they need work, and they think they can do it. There’s massive risk in going into areas that you don’t know and going into situations that are obviously volatile. From the fixer’s side, you could be putting yourself at risk.
When you’re talking about a hostile environment in these situations, you really have to be extremely careful.
From the journalist’s side, you really have to check that this guy can do what he says he can do and that you’re not just putting him or yourself into harm’s way. You’ve got to check out their background. We (at WorldFixer) can give you as much information as possible. We can help you as much as you want, but you have to do your own background. It is the most important thing. You’ll hear time and time again of journalists being taken into extremely sensitive areas and it not going well, and quite often they’ll be reported on by their fixers to local armed groups or to government bodies. There may be money changing hands for this; there may not be. But by and large, the relationship between a fixer and a journalist is many different things. When you’re talking about a hostile environment in these situations, you really have to be extremely careful.
What are some best practices for working with fixers?
We get numerous complaints from both sides of the fixer-employer relationship about malpractice, empty promises and money disputes. Not always, but in many cases, this is due to a breakdown in communication — cultural differences that affect each side’s expectations. We want to encourage people to be as clear and definitive as possible when working with fixers; don’t assume that they work the way you do or will pick up on things you have not clearly stated.
For example, ask up front if a price quoted for a job is all-in, or does it exclude extras like fuel, food, etc.? In many parts of the world this flexibility is normal, but Western employers in particular are accustomed to a quote meaning a final quote, not a flexible one.
Get everything in black and white, especially when it comes to this, and confirm that it is understood. It is the quickest way to sour an otherwise great and fulfilling working relationship and is sadly extremely common.
Be as clear and definitive as possible when working with fixers; don’t assume that they work the way you do or will pick up on things you have not clearly stated.
How should fixers be credited, if at all?
From my point of view, I don’t think they get enough recognition for what they do. I also don’t think they get paid well enough, although again, that’s case by case because some get paid very well.
If you turn up in a country and have a vague idea what you want to do a story about, and the fixer finds you all of that information, and you just write it up and hand it into your editor, what credit do you think would be fair to give that person? It’s very difficult to suggest that people should go down as co-writers or co-reporters. This is not really my place to say that. What I can say, though, is that I am not alone in the industry when I suggest that credit is not always given where it’s due; how that sentiment manifests itself, we will see.
Why do you think fixers don’t get more recognition?
I think there are a lot of voices out there who are keen to champion the work that they’ve done, more than they might have done before. I think it’s a case of how the outlets work. You’re talking about newspapers, broadcast TV — they like it to be a clear message from a clear, identifiable person, by and large. To start introducing other players into that, you’re talking about changing the way that you represent how news is gathered. It might not be convenient, and it might not be clear to the people who are seeing it.
It seems in the U.S. you hear most about fixers when they are wounded or die.
You’re 100 percent right. Sometimes you read it as a footnote; quite often you don’t hear about it at all. And quite often, the repercussions come months, years after the news story has moved on. There isn’t anything out there talking about these people, and there isn’t any system of insurance or payment or anything to help families of these people, even for the ones who are wounded. And on top of that, going into a particular job, you have journalists completing hostile environment training; this is not being extended to the fixers, by and large. We hope that this is something that will change. In our mind, it’s all about valuing the people that are actually helping you get this job done. There’s a long way to go for that.
How do people become fixers?
There’s two prongs to that. If you look at the case of Libya, for example, when that kicked off several years ago, there were people who fixed who had no experience with the media before, but they were there at the right place at the right time, and they were willing to risk their lives to get stories made and to take journalists out. Now, this is one extreme way to get into it, and not necessarily one that we can condone because you are putting yourself and the journalist you’re working with at risk. In many of these cases, it all works out fine, and it’s brilliant, but it wouldn’t be responsible of us to go around suggesting that people in those environments should start taking on massive responsibility.
Another way (of becoming a fixer) is you can advertise the skills that you do have, and an employer can decide if they are the right skills to get the job done. We have a fixer on the site in Maui, for example, who is fantastic with equipment. He has everything you could possibly need. He also happens to run a discrete logistics service for celebrities down there. So if I come there with a TV production, he’s going to know how to get things done, where to get everything and how to help me out. Would I go to him for a journalist’s story? Probably not. Then, I might look toward a local journalist. That local journalist might not necessarily be working all the time; they could also advertise themselves as a fixer, and they would have the necessary skills to help you out in their local area.
Would fixers be desirable domestically?
Absolutely, especially in a country like (the U.S.). It’s so huge. A fixer is, by and large, your man on the ground and knows where everything is and where to get it. If you come from the opposite side of the United States, you’re not going to know where that is and how to get it, so absolutely, you’d need a fixer. By the same token, in a tiny country like England, there are disparities between the North and the South, where many people will not know how to get around and how to get access to stories outside of their own backyard.