James Foley: A Story of Journalism in Conflict

James Foley at work in Libya a year before his death.
James Foley at work in Libya a year before his death.  John Cantlie / Getty Images

In the first minutes of Jim: The James Foley Story, premiering Feb. 6 on HBO, there’s a brief glimpse of a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling in the desert. It’s one of the few references in the film to the brutal video of the journalist’s decapitation that introduced much of the world to ISIS. But it’s enough to trigger the memory of the story, now over three years old, of a freelance photographer and videographer who was killed by the same group he was covering.

Foley’s experience in this small, dangerous line of work — one without supervisors, security teams, or reliable paychecks — is at the heart of this gripping documentary. As the news business contracts, many outlets increasingly rely on freelancers for international reporting. Without the security teams and other support, working the front lines of some of history’s most dangerous conflicts can turn deadly. 

With fewer foreign bureaus and staff reporters, modern war correspondents are untethered, without the hands-on backing of a big network, and many freelancers are often inexperienced, untrained, and paid poorly. In 2015, 21 percent of journalists killed on assignment were freelance, and in 2013, Reuters was embroiled in scandal when news broke that a 17-year-old Syrian photographer was killed on assignment.

RELATED: The Plight of Americans Kidnapped Abroad

Yet so many Americans tuning in don’t realize the danger freelancers put themselves in to get the story. “As a regular citizen I didn’t have a clue where we were getting images and stories from real, true conflicts,” Foley’s mother, Diane, told Men’s Journal. “Reporters often lived in the country were seldom targeted. They were considered neutral, like a Red Cross worker, but these days, there are fewer journalists in conflict zones who have the backing of security teams, and more of the news we are getting is from courageous freelance journalists.”

Stories also don’t usually come from committee, as you might expect, but from the freelancers themselves. Many conflict journalists start with a story idea, reach out to an editor, get the idea approved along with travel expenses, and then are on their own. “You are dependent on the goodwill of the people,” said Clare Morgana Gillis, a friend and colleague of Foley’s. “If you can’t hire a proper fixer, you have no security if you get nabbed.”

Since Foley’s death, conflict journalism has been in transition. Now, Gillis says, freelancers are less likely to take such risks, and reporters working in war zones are putting more security protocols in place. More often, before leaving the United States, reporters now do as much research as possible and give someone outside the country all of their important contact information. On the ground, they let colleagues know their plans, check in every several hours, and often keep about $10,000 in cash on hand, just in case.

“I went to Baghdad that last year, and I had a list of contacts who I was going to talk to,” Gillis said. “I had a list of possible fixers who I interviewed by phone, and I talked to all of my colleagues who were based in Baghdad, and asked about the risks. Baghdad is very expensive because you have to live within a compound that’s heavily reinforced. You have to have a driver, and a fixer, because the driver needs to stay with the car all the time to make sure a bomb doesn’t get planted under it.”

Still, lasting changes, Gillis argues, need to start from within the news outlets. “The news agencies have a number of really abhorrent practices,” Gillis says. “They take material from people who went without any assignment, without any, you know, clear means of supporting themselves, or plans to sell the story, and then news agencies will buy it, but only once you are safely out of the country. Then they won’t assign you to go back inside with the support, with the funding, with the insurance and the personal protective equipment. It’s absolutely predatory.”