The Journalist Who Shattered My War Correspondent Dream

A reconstruction of a battle of World War II. ( Moyan Brenn via Flickr)

It intrigued me when I first saw Francesca Borri’s article in Columbia Journalism Review: “Woman’s work: The twisted reality of an Italian freelancer in Syria?” Sounds like a cool story about a fierce female war correspondent, I wondered. But I was wrong. It is a ruthless piece that shattered all my romantic imagination about war journalism and freelance.

This thought-provoking piece pointed out the reality life of freelance war journalists: underpaid, life-threatened and the worst of all, they have failed to explain the wars they reported because editors only want “blood.” Many war freelance journalists are paid the same as freelancers anywhere else in the world: $70 per piece, which makes them can’t afford insurance, fixer or translator and maximizes the risks to being in war zone. And as a woman war journalist, Francesca Borri thinks the “fragile” characteristic actually play in advantage for her in some scenarios.

The author of this biting story, Francesca Borri, is an Italian War correspondent who has been in Middle East since 2007. When asked why in the first place, she wanted to write about her life, Borri said, “I am not only speaking for myself, I am speaking for democracy and my rights as a citizen.”

“What’s the point of writing about human rights in Afghanistan, in Iran, in Russia, in China, if you don’t write also of human rights in your own backyard?” said Borri. “Today 80 percent of the news, newspapers, radio, internet, television, all together, in all the world, come from freelancers like me. But they are, we are, without any right. Any right.”

She described the working situation for many journalists today: work underpaid for one, two years, three years, in the hope of a staff position. Until their bank accounts go into the red: and they are promptly replaced.

“But no one says anything. No one. A journalist that keeps silence on this wrongdoing to themselves — where’s our moral legitimacy for pointing the finger, for speaking of the others’ wrongdoings?” Borri argued.

I asked her, won’t it make this a more compelling case if you include more war journalists who are sharing the same experience in this story? Borri agreed with me and admitted that she has received some negative comments for this piece being “too personal and emotional” because of its first person narrative.

Borri told me, this story was supposed to about five Italian freelancers in Syria, including herself. But before publishing the story, one of the journalists in this story backed off and didn’t want to be included in it any more. “‘If others know how poorly-paid I get, they must think I’m a terrible journalist.’ He told me, he doesn’t want to look like a loser,” said Borri.

It frustrated Borri. “There’s no journalism, because there’s no conversation, if there is no exchange. Equal exchange,” she said. “You are asking strangers, total strangers, to talk, to disclose themselves and it doesn’t work, if you are not ready to disclose yourself as well.”

“They just hope: if I keep saying yes, if I keep quiet, those few staff positions will be mine. It’s like working in the factory, and you don’t say anything while everyone is exploited.” Borri explained why it’s so important for her to speak out even knowing it’s going to be controversial. Followed the suggestions from editors in Columbia Journalism Review, Borri cut her story and switched it to first person account.

But her story is more than just about herself, but also about the cruel fact that war journalism today is not doing a great job of covering stories that contains valuable information to their readers. Most war news fall into the sensational descriptions of bombing, decollation and blood.

Today, journalism has become a race. It’s to be the first to plant the flag on the moon: even if our word for “news” comes from Latin, and it stands for knowledge, not for new. There’s no such thing like new or old news: there are only significant or insignificant news.

But Borri believes the real problem in war journalism is not only blindly seeking to be the first but forgetting the real war is whatever behind the frontline, it’s what generates a frontline. “Do you really believe that jihadists are all insane? All butchers? That they don’t have reasons, motivations? That they are all like Jihadi John? Because it would be a bit like, well: like believing that all marines are like Abu Ghraib. A bit insane, wouldn’t it?” Borri said.

“Because when nearly all the contents of newspapers come from freelancers like me, that is, from underpaid twenty-somethings who don’t cover what they think it should be covered, but what they can, what they can afford to cover.” That’s the dilemma faced by war journalists.

That’s the reason why suddenly war journalists swarm all together to Ukraine, Borri explained. Because Ukraine was cheap, and for most people, they don’t need any visa to get into. It’s not like Ukraine is the only war at that time: there was the Sudan, there was the CAR, there was Ethiopia, there was Eritrea. “It’s not that we didn’t want, it’s not that we didn’t know: we just couldn’t, and we all moved to Ukraine: with the result that there were every day hundreds of articles, hundreds of photos from Ukraine, and every bullet hit the headlines: every dead turned into a massacre, every massacre turned into a genocide. And rather than covering the war to help stopping it, we ended up boosting, fueling violence,” said Borri.

Borri’s story in Columbia Journalism Review has got a lot of attention but she is not the first one trying to explain the dilemma faced by war journalists. She told me one Spanish freelancer also wrote something similar to this story years ago. But only her article went viral and not many noticed his story. The reason why is a female war correspondent is way more attractive and sexier than a man reporter. Sometimes, Borri hated to be judged by her gender and seen as a “fragile” female. But she also admitted, being a woman can actually help her do a better job.

“To be a woman, sure helped to be able to blend in. But if I’m still here, honestly, if I’m still alive, it is because I have been protected by Syrians. And most of all, by Syrian women.” Borri shared her story with those Syrians, “The border crossing has no precise opening hours, in Turkey, you might have to wait all morning: and the countless times. Therefore, that some ISIS militants noticed me, at some point, and they started observing me, this strange, suspicious refugee, so lonely and with no mud on her clothes. And immediately, yet, I was noticed also by the other women. They got it in a heartbeat: she’s a foreigner. And they came next to me, five, six, ten women, next to me, like a circle, every time, chatting with me in Arabic even if I speak only a little Arabic. Every time, every time, chatting, tattling with me as if I were a sister, a friend. As if I were a cousin. Until the ISIS militants went away.”

At the end of our interview, I asked Borri whether she has considered some negative effect of her story. As a journalism student, to be honest, I was a little bummed out after reading this piece and reconsidered pursuing a career as a war journalist.

Borri was silent for few seconds and said, “no matter what, I still have faith in journalism. Words don’t describe: words create. None of my dispatches will ever stop the war in Syria, but words create, create the public space. The space where citizens, political parties, trade unions, governments, stakeholders, can step in. Because things exist only when they are told. And only when they exist, they can be changed.”