When The Only Option is an NGO

Freelance Reporters Confront Ethics Issues Abroad

By Sandy K. Johnson

It’s become commonplace for journalists to “embed” with military units or non-governmental organizations in order to cover unfolding events where unilateral travel is difficult or impossible.

It’s how U.S. journalists got into Iraq and Afghanistan after war broke out – traveling, eating and sleeping alongside soldiers. And it is the way journalists often get to a natural disaster zone such as the 2015 earthquake in Nepal or the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.

This relationship is always fraught – who pays for what, are there restrictions on the journalists, etc. It can be even more complicated for  a freelance reporter overseas with no bosses or written rules to guide what’s ethically sound.

Andrew Green is a freelance journalist who covers health, human rights and politics in east and southern Africa. He wrote about his ethical dilemma for the Columbia Journalism Review in an article titled, “The thorny ethics of embedding with do-gooders.”

The article begins with information Green had heard about United Nations camps in South Sudan where refugees were packed together in appalling conditions. Green knew he needed to report the story in person.

He wrote:

The only ways into the town were on a free UNMISS flight or through the World Food Program-run UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS)—the same groups I was setting out to investigate. Other options included a likely impossible drive over waterlogged roads while trying to dodge ever-shifting frontlines, or hiring my own plane. My dependency on the UN and its agencies didn’t end with transportation. Unless I had arrangements with a non-governmental organization (NGO), I had to rely on UNMISS for accommodation when I arrived at a camp, for security to venture out beyond its bases, and even for access to its canteen if I wanted to eat anything besides the tins of near-expired fava beans I carried with me.

Green’s 3,782-word article explores the ethical issues that particularly face freelancers who work internationally. The crux of the dilemma is this, Green writes: “By working closely with these organizations, journalists may cede too much control to the humanitarian community. But if they refuse any humanitarian support, vital stories will go untold.”

Green’s article is a variation on a theme being explored by Tamar Haspel in a series for the National Press Foundation. The first of her articles, which can be found here, is titled, “What’s OK and What’s Not For Freelance Journos.”

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