International journalism is often associated with foreign correspondents who visit new locations and doggedly unearth important stories through their enterprising individual labor. However, international journalism actually depends heavily on local workers. So-called ‘fixers’ make up one such group of workers that is crucial to the production of international news.
Fixers are local workers who are hired by foreign correspondents (or their organizations) to serve as translators or guides, or who provide other kinds of reportorial assistance. Fixers frequently work for local media outlets in the country, and are often staff journalists themselves for those outlets. However, in the context of working as a fixer, they will usually help explain the context to the foreign correspondent, connect that correspondent with the contacts and sources the fixer has developed over the course of their career, and serve as translators during interviews conducted by the correspondent. Sometimes, they are given more menial, logistical tasks, such as reserving a vehicle or hiring protective services for the foreign correspondent. They may also play a role in safeguarding the correspondent by being more sensitive to worsening conditions during an interview or site visit.
Fixers play key roles in setting up a story but they are seldom given the opportunity to become deeply involved in how the story is told. Put another way, their involvement in the latter stages of news production, such as the writing of the story, is limited. A major consequence of this is that unlike stringers or freelancers, who are typically credited by name in a story (either as a co-author at the top of a story or as a contributor at the bottom), fixers typically receive little or no public credit. They are often only known to the journalists they work with and are discovered largely through word-of-mouth. For example, a foreign correspondent visiting Bolivia may ask fellow correspondents who are part of a Slack channel or Facebook group about the Bolivian fixers they would recommend. The foreign correspodent would then establish contact with the suggested fixers, and work with whomever is available or best suited for the given story. Thus, despite their crucial contributions, fixers occupy one of the lowest ranks within the hierarchy of international journalists and have limited opportunities for advancement.
For example, consider the case of a white, Christian foreign correspondent working for The Washington Post who is sent to Egypt to cover the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force during the country’s parliamentary elections. That correspondent may not speak Arabic, and thus may not be able to ask many of the locals about their impressions of that political party. As such, someone fluent in the local language is necessary. The correspondent may have done some background research on the Muslim Brotherhood and recent political trends in Egypt, but the information they are coming across is likely written in English and filtered through a Western perspective. As such, someone with local expertise would be helpful in order to not perpetuate some important biases. The correspondent may not be allowed to enter certain areas because they do not share the local faith, or because they are not a local citizen (as might be the case for a voting site). In such cases, someone who meets the requirements to ethically enter those places in order to observe things first-hand (or speak to a more diverse cast of sources) is necessary.
Given the circumstances in that example, a fixer would be a crucial aide in reporting that story. However, even if they performed all of those tasks — translating, contextualizing, and even doing some original reporting — they may still not receive any credit on the published story. Instead, they would be employed for a couple of days’ work, and perhaps paid as little as $50 each day (depending on how big of a deal the event or incident was). They would likely not be eligible for any additional benefits, such as extended medical care if they were to get hurt in the course of reporting of the story. And, often most importantly to some fixers, they may not have much of a voice in how their country is ultimately presented to an international audience.
While the lack of recognition presents both monetary and professional issues for fixers, perhaps the even bigger issue is that they often feel greater repercussions when things go wrong than the correspondents and outlets that hire them.
For example, a fixer may be willing to leverage their connections with a local militant group to connect a foreign correspondent with the group’s leader. During the course of the interview, the correspondent may break an agreed-upon arrangement, such as by capturing video of the group’s compound despite pledging to not record anything. The correspondent may also mischaracterize important aspects of the interview or depict that group under an unduly negative light, in ways that the fixer would never have done if they were reporting the story themselves. By the time the story is published, the correspondent may have returned to a safe location in their home country. In contrast, the fixer may not be able to go anywhere else. The correspondent’s actions may thus not only jeopardize the fixer’s sourcing network but potentially put them (and their family) in harm’s way.
Foreign correspondents must thus be sensitive to the harms their actions and reporting can cause to their local collaborators. While many foreign correspondents are cognizant of this and behave accordingly, the pressures to do more with less and to provide news reports that stand out in a crowded information ecosystem can push correspondents to neglect their impacts on fixers. Thus, there is arguably an ethical imperative for the institution of international journalism to offer more structural support for fixers, both in terms of the reward mechanisms for their work and harm-minimization solutions.
Fixers are local workers who are hired by foreign correspondents (or their organizations) to serve as translators or guides, or who provide other kinds of reportorial assistance. They frequently work as journalists for local media organizations in a country but are hired on an ad-hoc basis to support the correspondent.
Despite their crucial contributions to the reporting of a story, fixers receive little public credit or monetary reward for their work. They are rarely given a byline on a story and receive small stipends and few benefits. This, in turn, limits their professional development opportunities within journalism.
Fixers often feel greater and stronger consequences for the actions of a foreign correspondent than the correspondent themselves because the fixer may have to stay in the country long after the story is published. This may involve losing future access to some of their sources as well as being placed in harm’s way.