A working journalist abroad: lessons from using a ‘fixer’ in South Africa

Southern Africa 2016

By Lindsay Sample

December 05, 2016

Also published by CBC Radio

"So nice to meet you, can you tell me about your toilet?" It's not a question that people are expecting when they meet a journalist. Yet it's one that I found myself asking over and over again on my reporting trip in South Africa.

Toilets I learned are funny, most people laughed as they showed me where they go to relieve themselves. They kept laughing as I asked them to open and close the door, flush a couple of times, explain to me what I was looking at. The laughter helped because the story I reported on isn't a funny one.

I spent most of my time in Khayelitsha, South Africa, a big township just outside of Cape Town. There, a lot of people don't have toilets in their houses so when they have to go to the bathroom they have to go for a walk. My piece looks into how women in particular are vulnerable on these walks, at risk of being sexually assaulted.

As a foreign journalist reporting on a sensitive subject, I wanted to make sure that I understood what was going on as much as I could. So I did what many journalists do when reporting abroad: I hired a fixer — a person to help me navigate the language and norms of the area. On this particular trip I was in the unique position to work with five fixers, four during my fellowship with the International Reporting Project, and one for my solo reporting time.

Here are a few tips from my experience and from the fixers who I worked with:

1. Get a recommendation for someone who knows the area

My first step when I'm  looking for a fixer is to reach out to journalists who live in or have reported from where I'm going. I ask them who they would recommend working with. I've found they'll be able to help if you've thought through what pieces of the puzzle are going to need to fit together to get your reporting done. What languages do the people you're planning to interview speak, how complicated are logistics in the area you're hoping to work in, etc.

Freelance video journalist and fixer Stuart Graham recommends you find a person who "has deep knowledge of the area, the culture and people. Someone who is aware of the dangers and who is going to be objective."

2. When you can, hire a journalist

Everybody thinks about journalism differently but I've found that working with someone who has journalism experience helps. It's such a joy to work with someone who gets "it," whatever "it" means to you.

"The best researchers and fixers are journalists," says broadcast journalist and fixer Ashleigh Hamilton. "They ask the right questions and know how to run with something without much overseeing."

3. Have a clear sense of your project and your needs

"In most cases, Journalists approach fixers, without a clear understanding of what the scope of the project/report is and exactly what is required of them," says social advocacy journalist and fixer Oliver Meth. "Journalists have to open up to state exactly what they're researching and what they would like to get," he adds.

For my next reporting trip I know that I will want to give my fixer as clear of a schedule as possible, a list of interviews I've set up, and areas where I think I'll need the most support.

4. You might need more than one person

Though it saves you money if you hire a fixer who can also be your driver, in my experience this doesn't always work well. If the logistics are simple and you speak the language I think it can work. But if your reporting is heavy on the logistics and heavy on the need for translation I would recommend paying the extra money to have both.

"The journalist mustn't forget that they actually are the journalist and not the fixer," says Graham. "Overall the journalist should do the work and employ a driver and translator," he says.

5. Talk about the money

Depending on where you are working there may be different understanding of what it means to be a journalist, and what it means to interview someone. "The issue of incentivising is really sensitive." says Khayelitsha-based producer and fixer Mthobeli Gladstone Mali. Since your fixer is helping to arrange interviews and/or translating your requests, make sure you talk to your fixer about this.

At CBC the policy is that journalists cannot pay people for their time. During my reporting I was asked by people, who coincidentally were not included in my piece, about whether or not they would be paid for their time. I had to clearly communicate why that was not possible.

6. Credit fixers for their work

A fixer can play a relatively small role in shaping your story or a really big one, but many news organizations don't have a policy on naming them. Whether it's a shared by-line or a mention at the end of the story I think we should be pushing for acknowledging the role that a fixer plays in shaping our stories.

As this Al Jazeera America article (focused on conflict reporting) puts it, "media organizations need a better protocol for these practices that is informed by the experience of and conversations with staff journalists, freelancers and fixers. We need guidelines that will protect the interests of all parties and help redress the unequal relationships."