Media, culture and armed violence

Conflict reporting in the 21st century: findings from a one day seminar

On Saturday 8th February, AOAV, Birkbeck College and the Frontline Club hosted the conference ‘Conflict Reporting in the 21st Century’. This is the summary report from that event.


Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) have been monitoring the devastating impact of explosive weapons for nine years. Between 2011 and 2018, we recorded 309,044 casualties from explosive weapons as reported in English language media worldwide. These included 231,909 civilians, some 77% of the total killed or injured. Disturbingly, AOAV consistently found that, when explosive weapons with wide area effects were used in populated areas, 90% of casualties are civilians.

It is relatively rare that perpetrators are willing to admit or debate the extensive civilian harm caused by their weapon use. The UK is no exception. According to data released to Action on Armed Violence, the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) claims that RAF strikes in Iraq and Syria have killed and injured an estimated 4,315 enemies between September 2014 and January 2019. Yet, despite such high numbers of enemy combatants claimed harmed, the UK government also says they have killed just one civilian through 54 months of engagement in Iraq and Syria. Such claims have been met with strong scepticism by academics, journalists and experts. As yet, the UK government has not admitted further civilian casualties. Faced with such a questionable assertion, it is clear that it is up to journalists, reporters and investigators to hold perpetrators to account for the harm to civilians in conflicts.

Spurred on by this, AOAV convened a one-day conference aimed at interrogating how journalists can hold perpetrators to account for civilian harm, assessing the changing nature of journalism in conflict reporting, and debating the new techniques available to journalists to do this. Public awareness of the harm caused by explosive weapons depends, in large part, on how it is reported in the media. It is thus of vital importance to assess how these incidents are reported and to encourage the next generation of conflict reporters to report on issues such as air-strikes fairly and accurately.


This event was part of a two-year Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust-funded project, during which AOAV has been examining the Royal Air Force’s historic and ongoing use of airstrikes over Iraq and Syria, the impact this has on civilians, and how it is reported in the media. AOAV previously ran a meeting at Chatham House to debate the RAF and its recent deployment of airstrikes, to explore the Ministry of Defence (MOD)’s claims of near-zero civilian casualties and the importance that the protection of civilians plays in the RAF’s rules of engagement.

This media event took place on 8th February 2020 at Birkbeck College, London. It involved around 300 participants from across the world, including journalists, students, civil society actors and academics. The day included a keynote speech, two breakout sessions for workshops, and three main panels — each panel was led by a moderator and featured three participants.

The keynote speech was given by veteran reporter Janine di Giovanni, and provided an overview of the changing nature of conflict reporting, emphasising the importance of journalists holding governments accountable.

Session 2 looked at how journalists can tell the stories of civilians. It examined the complex ethics of this reporting, and the relationship between the journalist and their subject.

Session 3 focused on the new tools and techniques available to conflict reporters, especially open source investigations, scrutinising how these developments work alongside field investigations and their role in assessing civilian casualties, with a focus on air strikes.

Session 4 provided an opportunity to discuss the increased numbers of freelancers in conflict reporting. It looked at the financial and physical security issues facing freelancers and the responsibilities of news organisations and NGOs towards them.

There were also two breakout sessions, one before and one after lunch, which provided participants the opportunity to learn practical skills from our experts, including weapon identification and first aid.


The day was introduced by Professor Tim Markham, director of the BA Journalism and Media at Birkbeck College and graduate studies within the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies. Tim emphasised the specific role of journalists, saying their job was to ‘sell it and not just see it’, reminding attendees that accountability depended on public awareness and the purpose of AOAV’s project.

This set the tone for the keynote speech, given by Janine di Giovanni. Janine is an award-winning author, journalist and foreign policy analyst. She is currently a Senior Fellow at Yale University, the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where she teaches two courses in Human Rights that focus in on recent conflicts and wars. From witnessing the siege of Sarajevo, to the fall of Grozny and the destruction of Srebrenica, to Rwanda in 1994, di Giovanni has reported on conflict and its repercussions for over 25 years. Her work has appeared in major publications including The Guardian, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and The Times. She has won multiple awards including an Amnesty International Award and Courage in Journalism Award.

Di Giovanni began the keynote speech with a contemplation on the role of experienced conflict reporters in educating the next generation:

“I got a message from James Nachtwey, the great war photographer, who said, ‘You’ve done your bit. Now pass the mantle, pass the baton.’ I didn’t pass the baton at that point. I still kept going. But I truly believe that what our responsibility is, my generation or before, is to give you the skills to then go on and do what we did.”

This message is all the more vital given the current political climate, Di Giovanni argued.  She said that President Trump posed a threat to democracy, “cosying up to dictators” and authoritarian leaders across the world and attempting to prevent the press from holding him accountable: “He hates us. He hates journalism. He hates the free press. He scorns the rule of law.”

However, the current degradation of human rights extends beyond the US. Di Giovanni stated that the UN has begun to abandon human rights to appease member states like Russia and China, who do not want investigations into their abuses.

“We cannot let these corners of darkness, this abuse of power, the abuse of human rights, the relentless attacks on civilians in conflict to go unnoticed and unmonitored. It’s up to us.”

The importance of bearing witness to civilian harm in conflict, which is at the centre of AOAV’s work, was a theme throughout the keynote. Di Giovanni noted that the almost complete destruction of the Responsibility To Protect Doctrine (R2P), which was the UN’s global commitment in 2005 and cuts to the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping budget have placed civilians at risk. Di Giovanni touched on her own experiences of reporting from conflicts to illustrate the necessity of civilian protection. She spoke of her experiences of living in the bombed-out Holiday Inn in Sarajevo and the close bonds she built with the besieged civilians; referring to the “great shame” of the UN and within the international community for the atrocities committed in Rwanda and Bosnia and their collective failure to act.

The keynote speech also focused on the harm that is inflicted on civilian through disinformation and revisionist history. Di Giovanni singled out the treatment of the White Helmets, or Syria Civil Defence, who are humanitarian workers supporting civilians in areas of severe bombing and destruction in Syria. The White Helmets have experienced a relentless disinformation campaign from Russia, she said, a country that launched a strategic campaign to essentially discredit them as Al-Qaeda. Di Giovanni argued that these Russian attacks, often aided by a small number of academics and commentators, was because the While Helmets wear GoPro cameras on their helmet. This means the White Helmets posed a threat insofar as they documented human rights abuses and potential war crimes in real time, recording the impact of Russian airstrikes. For di Giovanni, disinformation and revisionist history are an affront to the dignity of victim and survivors, reminding us the importance of having journalists as “defenders of the truth”.


The first panel session of the day examined the importance of telling the stories of civilians in conflict, how different forms of media can do this, and the ethical complexities of this storytelling. The recent conflicts in Syria and Iraq have seen horrendous levels of civilian casualties and direct targeting of civilians. AOAV’s research has found that in 2018 in Syria, 80% (9,587) of casualties from explosive violence were civilians. What is the role of the media in ensuring that people are aware of such civilian casualties?

This panel was chaired by Lindsey Hilsum, the International Editor of Channel 4 News. She has reported from conflict zones across the world for several decades, most recently from Syria and Iraq. Lindsey was in Baghdad for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, and in Belgrade for the 1999 NATO bombing. In 1994, she was the only English-speaking correspondent in Rwanda when the genocide began. Her work has garnered several awards, including from the Royal Television Society and BAFTA. Hilsum has published a book on Libya. Her second book ‘In Extremis – the Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin’ won the 2019 James Tait Black Award for biography.

Along with Janine di Giovanni, Hilsum was joined by Giles Duley and Saleyha Ahsan. Duley is an award-winning photographer who has worked in hostile environments and conflict zones across the world. Originally a fashion and music photographer, he began reporting on conflicts in 2000 when he began to document the work of NGOs and the stories of those affected by conflict across the world. In 2011, Duley lost both legs and his left arm after stepping on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Afghanistan whilst photographing those caught up in the conflict. He has since documented stories in Lebanon, Bangladesh, and Colombia, amongst others, and has also been made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.

Dr Ahsan is a former member of the British Army Medical Corps, where she led her troops on an operational tour of Bosnia. Since leaving the army, she has subsequently reported, presented and made documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 from hostile environments such as Kashmir, Palestine, and Libya. She has reported for BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent, Channel 4 News online, BBC Newsnight, and BBC Panorama. Dr Ahsan has also continued to work on the frontline of medicine as an A&E doctor.

Hilsum began the session by essentially asking the panel, “why civilians?” What was the importance of telling their stories? Why had many of them focused almost exclusively on these stories?

Duley responded first by saying this has work “doesn’t just concentrate on it. It’s just 100% on civilians.” For him, stories of civilians are often overlooked, “you look through newspapers and there are always stories that you think, well, where are they? Why are they not being told?” Dr Ahsan took a similar position to Duley, noting that she was interested fundamentally in “the ordinary person and the human story.” Di Giovanni agreed that there was an obligation almost to tell these stories. She repeated advice she was given at the beginning of her career: “if you have the ability to go to these places and write about these people then you have the responsibility and the obligation […] go and tell the story of these voiceless people.”

Many conflict reporters choose to embed themselves in within the military, telling the stories of conflict through the perspective of strategy and tactics. Hilsum asked about the importance of reporting from both perspectives, “if we don’t understand what the strategy is and if we don’t understand weapons, then surely we’re not telling the story?” She noted the importance of understanding politics and tactics in order to properly tell civilian stories. Di Giovanni agreed but emphasised the importance of integrating and including those perspectives into civilian stories.

The panel all acknowledged the ethical and practical issues posed by interviewing civilians. Hilsum spoke of how she had found that female survivors of sexual violence in the Rwandan genocide were less and less likely to tell their stories to journalists as the years went by: “the women told me, ‘I told my story more times than I can remember. And I talked to so many journalists, it makes no difference to my situation, why should I talk to you?’” The panel then discussed how it was possible to build up and develop working relationships with civilian subjects.

All panellists agreed that trust was a crucial element of this process. Duley observed “We use the phrase ‘to take photographs.’ However, I always think the best photographs are given to you […] I would say photography for me is a conversation. It’s a two-way thing.” He spoke about how often building up this trust was a slow process. One story he told was of a woman living in Mosul, Iraq, who had lost three members of her immediate family. Duley was able to steadily build up trust with her by cooking and eating with her and her family.

Hilsum noted that this approach depended heavily on the type of reporting. Journalists working for a daily news programme would not be able to build up such a long-term rapport with an interviewee; it is their responsibility to get the story out as quickly as possible. The panel also reflected on the ethics of different forms of media. Di Giovanni noted that when she worked for The Sunday Times in the 1990s, she witnessed the extreme pressure for tabloid journalists to get a scoop, whatever the cost. Notably different to Duley’s approach, some reporters adopted the motto of ‘make it sing, make it ring, make it up’, disregarding their interviewees and taking extreme risks in the process.

Trust is not only a key element of the relationship between the civilian interviewee and the reporter; it is also vital that readers and viewers trust the stories that journalists tell. This panel examined how disinformation and propaganda were increasingly focused on civilian stories. Dr Ahsan in particular had experienced this through making the documentary ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ for BBC’s Panorama programme. The programme focused on the doctors and healthcare workers trying to provide medical aid in Syria. While they were filming in Aleppo, however, they witnessed the fallout of an incendiary bomb which had been dropped on a school. Ahsan described it as “one of the most harrowing things” she had ever witnessed. This documentary was attacked by trolls and theorists online, who claimed that the BBC had staged the attack and hired actors to play the children.

Dr Ahsan commented on how these attacks made her feel like she had let the victims down:

“We were there. We saw it. Those people looked at us and they wanted us to tell the world that this is what it looks like, this is what it feels like, the absolute pain and agony was so powerful. Yet I just feel like I failed because there is this growing body of people out there that are spreading these lies […] They’re still doing it today. I mean, it does make the recovery for us that much harder. I feel I’ve let people down because I witnessed it but I haven’t been able to counter that argument yet.”

Hilsum asked what more could journalists do to counter or defend against these attacks? Di Giovanni noted that in the US this disinformation was partly being facilitated by increasingly polarized media organisations. She commented that outlets such as Fox News were responsible for proliferating disinformation and lies to the public. There was an agreement that it was difficult to counter such attacks. However, participants stated that journalists needed to remain doggedly steadfast in their pursuit of truthful storytelling. Di Giovanni told the audience: “You still have to do it; you still have to get it in your notebooks and you still have to get the truth. Because then no one can dispute it. You saw it, you witness it, and you’ve got it on camera. And that it is it. That is the truth.” The session finished with Duley saying that despite the propaganda and disinformation, he still believed “in the power of stories”, calling on audience members to listen to civilians.

Questions raised:

  • Have you experienced colleagues that weren’t as ethically careful?
  • How do you leave a conflict zone behind?
  • How do you maintain your personal resilience?
  • Is it difficult to strike the balance between telling the story and being sensationalist?
  • Do we need to change education around social media to help people identify ‘fake news’?


Across the globe, there has been a proliferation of digital technology. According to the Pew Research Center, five billion people worldwide own mobile phones, half of which are equipped with cameras. Victims, perpetrators, and observers are now much more able to record and disseminate footage from conflicts. Concurrently, financial constraints have led many newsrooms to downsize, leading to gaps in foreign and investigative reporting. 

This has presented both an opportunity and a challenge for traditional media outlets, freelancers, NGOs and new media organisations in how to report on conflicts. Enter open source investigations. Using mountains of data sourced from freely available online resources like Twitter, Facebook and Google Earth, and often on a limited budget, many of the world’s biggest stories are being broken from behind laptops across the globe. This panel looked at how digital investigation units, bloggers, monitoring groups, and NGOs are working to strengthen public information about conflicts, hold perpetrators to account, and uncover vital stories. These new techniques and tools have proved vital in assessing civilian casualties, disputing state claims of airstrike casualties and corroborating survivor testimony.

This panel was chaired by Professor Tim Markham from Birkbeck College. Joining Markham on the panel was Nick Waters, Donatella Rovera and Chris Woods. Waters is an open-source investigator for the award winning collective Bellingcat. Prior to this, he spent three years as an infantry officer in the British Army, before completing a MA in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London. Waters’ work at Bellingcat has focused on human rights abuses in Syria, the use of drones by sub-state actors and the systematic application of Open Source Investigation to examine airstrikes in Yemen.

Rovera is a Senior Crisis Response Advisor at Amnesty International. She has been conducting investigations into war crimes and other human rights abuses in armed conflict for over 25 years. Most recently she has worked in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and the Palestinian Territories, amongst others. Her expertise includes international humanitarian and human rights law and refugee law. 

Chris Woods is the founder and Director of Airwars, where he leads on research, investigations and military advocacy. A conflict specialist, he worked for the BBC’s Newsnight and Panorama as a senior producer for many years. Woods also previously set up and ran the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s award-winning Drones Project. His book, Sudden Justice, charts the history of armed drone use in Iraq and elsewhere since 9/11. He has also won several awards, including the Martha Gellhorn Prize. 

The session began with a discussion of how both the nature of conflict and the tools to investigate these conflicts have changed over the last decade. Rovera noted that the rise of open source investigations was reflective of not only the changing nature of the newsroom, but through the nature of conflict itself. In Rovera’s experience, in many of the places she had worked, non-state groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban and al-Shabaab, used to allow for some small engagement with journalists and researchers. However, since the rise of ISIS, these possibilities essentially stopped existing, making many of these places no-go areas for journalists.

Woods added that while there is an increased focus on remote warfare, this does not mean that conflicts have become more “antiseptic”. He noted that the Battle of Mosul in 2016-2017 was the most intense urban fighting since World War Two, with somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 civilians killed. This makes it incredibly difficult to have traditional field investigators reporting from the ground. According to Woods, from the ground “you can get some very accurate pictures, but can you capture the scale of the harm? That is the challenge we’re grappling with.”

Rovera was keen to stress, however, that open source investigations should not be treated as a substitute for on the ground reporting. For her, incorporating and adapting to new digital tools and techniques is a necessity: “some people still look at satellite imagery and digital analysis as optional or the ‘cool extra stuff’ on top that you may or may not use. However, the fact is that when it’s available, it’s not an option to ignore it.” Indeed, Waters pointed out that it was journalists who were some of the first to recognise the potential importance of open source investigations. He notes that when the founder of Bellingcat, Elliot Higgins, was investigating weapon types in Libya, it was journalists who picked up on his research and acknowledged its worth.

Participants noted that open source investigations provide journalists and researchers with a unique opportunity. It gave them access to information and sources that could not otherwise be reached. Woods noted that this was especially important for Airwars’ work in investigating and verifying civilian casualties. Markham asked the panel about the future of open source investigations and whether algorithms could potentially monitor human rights abuses instead. Both Woods and Waters were sceptical about the ability of algorithms to conduct these investigations. Woods noted that “the subtleties of conflicts we cover were so great, you know, a conflict might move from one village to the next, and then the next, and then back to another village. You simply can’t teach algorithms in that way.”  Waters commented:

“I think a lot of the work we do you need a large amount of contextual knowledge, when you conduct a geolocation, before you even look at the satellite imagery, you have to use contextual knowledge to narrow that down […] each case is slightly different, so it can be quite difficult to train an algorithm.”

However, Waters also noted that groups such as Forensic Architecture and Syrian Archive had begun to develop algorithmic tools which can recognise particular munitions or parts of munitions. He said that this suggested that algorithms potentially have a role “but maybe not as much as people think.”  

As with traditional forms of journalism, there are both responsibilities and concerns that come with these techniques. At the beginning, Waters noted that open source investigators did still have to take security precautions, using VPNs or virtual machines. Participants noted though that it was mainly their sources and the subjects of their reporting whose security was at risk. This often requires difficult ethical calls to be made. Waters said that when Bellingcat were investigating MH-17 they discovered the names of 250 members of the GRU who were involved in the downing of the flight. However, Bellingcat decided not to publish their names as it was not deemed to be in the public interest. Rovera added that the proliferation of social media meant that investigators may be more willing to cross ethical red lines around privacy and protection. For example, sharing a photo of a child in prison accused of terror offences. She stated “just because people can be very reckless with their own safety online doesn’t mean that journalists should do the same.”

The panel expressed concerns about the wellbeing of open source investigators who look at graphic images of conflict day in, day out. Waters noted that “when you are looking at this kind of content, you have to be very careful about the kind of impact it has on you […] when you’ve been looking over this stuff for years and years and years, the impact and trauma can build up, something people need to be aware of.” Woods described it as “the biggest challenge” that Airwars is facing:

“The emotional and traumatic effect of endless monitoring of civilian harm is something that we and many organizations are grappling with at the moment. One of the downsides to the digitally right environment is that all of our researchers are working at all times with entirely unmediated, high definition video and audio.”

Participants noted that the combination of emotional trauma from the material and the responsibility towards victims could be difficult. It was especially frustrating when investigations and evidence did not result in change. Waters commented:

“It’s been a rather depressing experience for me. I think in 2015-2016, when I was doing my masters, I was still under the idea that you can present evidence to a person and you can back up your argument and that you know what you’re saying is close to the truth. However, the last few years have shown me that that’s not how people work, and people interact with information in a bizarre way.”

Rovera noted that social media had, in some ways, worsened the “bizzare” way in which people interact with information. By having such a proliferation of sources online, there can be a “contamination of evidence” which can spread false narratives around conflicts. Woods noted, however, that the responsibility towards victims was not entirely negative: “It can be positive, actually, the sense of purpose, a sense of achievement, that sense of doing something, that it can actually help mitigate the negative feelings.”  

Questions Raised:

  • Does the Julian Assange case worry you with regards to investigative journalism?
  • How do you cope with online troll campaigns?
  • How easy is it to investigate the Libyan conflict given there is much less Western attention?


Over the past few years, news organisations have been forced to downsize due to financial constraints and industry changes. This has led to significant gaps in foreign and investigative reporting. A 2010 survey by the American Journalism Review found that the number of foreign correspondents at US newspapers had dropped from 307 in 2003 to 234. With fewer staff reporters on the ground, freelancers have become an increasingly vital resource for media outlets to gather high quality stories. Similarly, freelancing has become the quickest way for young journalists to begin careers as foreign correspondents. However, how sustainable is this transition towards freelancing? What legal, institutional, and industry-wide changes need to be made to better support freelancers? This panel aimed to interrogate these questions.

This session was chaired by Liliane Landor. Joining Landor, was Clothilde Redfern, Sophie Argent and Seyi Rhodes. Landor is the Head of Foreign News at Channel 4 News. Prior to this, she was at the BBC for over 20 years, where she was the Language Services Controller in the World Service, editorially and managerially responsible for all 29 languages around the world across TV, radio and digital. She joined the BBC in 1989, first as a presenter on the French service before eventually becoming responsible for all the BBC World Service News and Current Affairs in English. She has also been the head of the World Service’s Middle East region. Landor has been a strong advocate for women’s issues and diversity, helping launch the BBC’s 100 Women project which champions women’s achievements globally.

Redfern is Director of the Rory Peck Trust (RPT), an organisation dedicated to supporting freelance journalists worldwide. RPT provides direct financial assistance to freelance journalists in crisis and also delivers training initiatives focused on physical safety, digital security and trauma management. Clothilde started her career at the International Herald Tribune in Paris. Following a year in Sydney working for Marie Claire Magazine, she moved to London in 2005 and joined the Media Trust’s production team, making documentaries for the Together Channel. She then spent four years at Channel 4 working in the Documentaries department. Prior to joining the Rory Peck Trust she was the Director of One World Media, a non-profit organisation supporting journalists and filmmakers reporting from developing countries. She has been a member of the advisory board for the Department of Media at Brunel University and currently sits on the Board of the ACOS Alliance.   

Argent is a Media Content Lawyer with several years of experience advising on legal, regulatory and ethical issues during the production and broadcasting process. She routinely advises on issues that raise challenging legal, regulatory and ethical problems such as secret filming, privacy, filming with children and vulnerable people and has been involved in providing guidance for programmes that involve travel to hostile countries and environments. Argent is also studying for a Masters in International Human Rights Law and has a particular interest in the international newsgathering process and the protection of freedom of speech worldwide.

Rhodes is a television presenter and investigative journalist. He began his career as a current affairs researcher and Assistant Producer for documentaries broadcast on the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. He has subsequently gone on to present over twenty episodes of Channel 4’s Unreported World series, reporting on atrocities in the Sierra Leonean conflict and the civil war in Ivory Coast. Rhodes has also worked on Channel 4’s Dispatches and the BBC’s Panorama programmes. 

Landor began the sessions by sketching the relationship between freelancers and news organisations. She described how many media companies view freelancers as “cheap” and ultimately “disposable”. Freelancers are required to be “eager” and “flexible”, willing to chase after a story at a moment’s notice with little regard for safety. She noted that while these relationships often weren’t ethical, there still exists a mutual dependence between news organisations and freelancers.

Rhodes stated that he agreed with Landor’s characterisation of freelance conflict reporters. He said that risk was inherent to the job, while acknowledging the issues that come with that:

“I get to the point where the next job I’m offered, I will take. Risk isn’t even a factor anymore […] it gets to that stage where you just have to say yes. That’s not me being flippant, my job involves taking risks.”

He noted that he was not unique in this situation and that it was one that many freelance conflict reporters will find themselves in. In response to Rhodes, Redfern said that she instinctively had alarm bells ringing. She said that “the risk assessment that you’re doing as a journalist is as important as the editorial direction of the story you’re going to tell.” Redfern noted that organisations such as the Frontline Club and Rory Peck Trust were increasingly trying to teach freelancers that undertaking proper risk assessments is a key part of being professional. Freelancers who conduct them properly are more likely to have a better relationship with news organisations.

Argent discussed the legal duties of news organisations to conduct proper risk assessments for the freelancers they employ. She was also keen to emphasise that news organisations have responsibility towards freelancers that extends beyond the legal. Argent says that she always makes a point of asking a freelancer, even if their a seasoned reporter or about to go to the frontline, “are you okay to do this? Do you feel like you can do this?” Argent also emphasised that if a freelancer admits discomfort or concerns about safety, that should not put a black mark against their name and they should be encouraged to express concerns.

The panel agreed that one of the key reasons that freelancers may take greater risks with their work is the financial precariousness of the job. Redfern noted that in a survey conducted by the Frontline Club Freelance Register, the financial burden of trying to make a living was cited as the main stress for freelancers. Rhodes spoke of his own experiences as a freelancer: “financially, it’s disastrous. You can’t really have things like a mortgage.” He noted that the reason he was essentially committed to saying yes to whatever job came his way, was due to his bank balance. Rhodes acknowledged that this had a serious impact on his wellbeing:

“When you’ve got a permanent job, it’s just what you do and you can switch off. But when you’re freelancing, that is all that you do. It’s your life. It’s your job. It’s everything. Which is probably psychologically wrong, but that’s what the pressure of freelancing does to you. You can’t stop.”

The relationship between financial pressure and psychological wellbeing is exacerbated by how expensive counselling and therapy is. While this may be a crucial way for conflict reporters to receive support, freelancers on precarious salaries may find it difficult to access these services.

Redfern highlighted that it was crucial for freelancers to communicate with one another about much they were being paid, how to negotiate, and which news organisations pay on time. Argent also noted that it was important for freelancers to know their legal rights and responsibilities.

However, throughout the session, Rhodes was keen to emphasise that there were positive aspects of freelancing. He noted that often the lack of commitment to a particular organisation offered a great degree of freedom with his work and the chance to take on projects that would not otherwise be available.

The panel also examined the ethical issues facing commissioners. Landor provided an extended example of the kind of dilemma that news organisations often face; she then asked panellists and audience members what they would do in this situation. She gave the example of Libya and asked them to imagine they were a commissioner, who was called up by a freelance foreign correspondent stationed in Benghazi. The freelancer said they could get some fantastic footage from the front, and that they are ready to go as soon as they get the green light from the editor. Landor asked if they would say no outright, because they could not be certain if the freelancer had undergone the proper training, if they would say yes immediately to get the story, or if they would ask the freelancer to come back once they had got the footage. Landor noted that many editors do indeed use the final option, washing their hands of the responsibility for a freelancer while implicitly suggesting that a commission may be on offer.

Rhodes, Argent, and Redfern all agreed that the third option should be discounted, as although it may be used by some commissioning editors, it exposes the freelancer to the most risk. Rhodes also proposed another option. He suggested that you try and integrate the freelancer into existing networks on the ground in Libya. For example, news organisations often employ local producers and fixers. This may be a way of getting the footage while also trying to ensure the safety and security of the freelancer.

Panellists also noted the importance of news organisations commissioning local journalists. Landor commented that Channel 4, where she works, makes a point of hiring and commissioning local journalists to tell stories. Argent noted that it was of the utmost importance to take into account local fixers, translators and drivers when conducting risk assessments.

Questions Raised

  • What structures need to be changed in the newsroom to better support freelancers?
  • Are the experiences of freelancers in terms of pitching, negotiating payments etc. gendered?
  • How reluctant are media organisations to commission work from freelancers in risky areas?
  • What are the risks for freelancers reporting on organised crime groups or extremists?
  • How has the attitude of news organisations changed towards freelancers?


There were two time slots allocated for breakout sessions, one before lunch and one after. Attendees selected two different workshops out of a choice of five. These offered the opportunity to gain practical skills and knowledge from our highly qualified speakers.

The first workshop was ‘Practicalities of Conflict Reporting’, led by Janine di Giovanni and Iain Overton, an investigative journalist and AOAV’s Executive Director. They gave an insight into what kit and equipment was crucial, pitching stories, and developments in conflict reporting.

Professor Mike Spagat from Royal Holloway, University of London, gave an introduction to casualty recording. This workshop provided a historical overview of casualty recording practices and the main practitioners today, outlined the standards, highlighted bad techniques used by casualty recorders.

Nick Waters gave a presentation on conducting open source investigations. He provided an overview of what this new field involved, and then got participants to carry out a series of activities to introduce them to the key techniques.

Dr Saleyha Ahsan ran a workshop on first aid in hostile environments. This gave participants an insight into the most important aspects of first aid that conflict reporters need to know. She provided demonstrations and got attendees to practice these life-saving techniques.

Neil Corney from the Omega Research Foundation gave a workshop on weapons identification. This is a crucial area of conflict reporting which journalists often aren’t properly trained in. He gave an overview of the main types of weapon used in conflict and introduced techniques for identifying their type, model and manufacturer.


AOAV, the Frontline Club and Birkbeck College were pleased to welcome around 300 attendees to the event. Throughout the day, attendees made excellent and thought-provoking contributions from the floor. We subsequently sent out a feedback form to all attendees and received a good response. Over 60% of attendees rated the panel sessions as 5 out of 5 or ‘highly interesting’. Feedback we received noted that the day was “well chaired” with “fantastic panels”. The keynote speech by Janine di Giovanni received a similarly positive response, with over 75% of attendees rating it 5 out of 5. Feedback praised di Giovanni’s “informed and informative” talk and described it as “illuminating and moving”.  Attendees also enjoyed the practical workshops we ran. They noted that speakers were “really approachable and engaging” and commented that they “learned a lot”. Again, this was reflected in the rating — 60% of responses were 5 out of 5.

AOAV intends to host more conferences of this nature in the future. Please subscribe to our mail outs for details of such events.