Freelancers, “Fixers” and Translators

Journalists often work closely with contract workers — freelancers, translators and “fixers” (people who arrange transportation and other support for visiting correspondents, set up interviews, etc). Sometimes laws govern our relationships, including the fees to be paid to freelancers or stringers and our obligations to them.

But if laws aren’t involved, what are our ethical obligations?

Certainly there’s the argument that contract workers are just that: hired to do a specific job with no relationship to our news outlet beyond what we specifically put in the contract. That might especially be true with someone who just shows up out of the blue and leaves after completing service to us. If the person subsequently gets arrested as a result of an assignment or comes down with a disease contracted on a trip we requested, some journalists might feel no obligation beyond whatever payments or consideration were covered in the contract.

But sometimes we have much deeper relationships with such people, even going on for years. They may accompany us on dangerous assignments, earn bylines in our publications, even win awards for us. In such a case, it may feel wrong simply to contend they’ve just been doing a lot of piecework, and we have no broader obligations.

News outlets will vary in terms of the money they have for insurance, medical evacuation plans, legal defense and other benefits for such people. Sometimes organizations simply cannot extend the kinds of benefits they want. Even when there is money, there may be legal issues. Certain kinds of benefits may legally make people formal employees, entitled to long-term employment and eventually a pension.

Still, many news organizations do whatever they can for the benefit of contract workers. This includes defending them when their work gets them into trouble with authorities, enrolling them in hazardous-duty training courses and entering them in contests. Perhaps most important, news organizations should stress to contract workers that their safety is paramount. Freelancers, translators and fixers should not take chances with their lives or health just to sell us another story or image.

The most important thing is to make clear to short-term and long-term contract workers exactly how we see our obligations to them.

The main author of this section is Thomas Kent, with additions from Lindsay Palmer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.