Mixing my early interests in the critical and cultural study of war and conflict with the increasing urgency I feel to study the unsustainable dynamics of digital media industries, this study looks at the stratification of labor in international war and conflict reporting. In many ways, we can understand what is happening among freelancers, stringers, and fixers in places like Syria as a kind of journalistic outsourcing, where an increasing assumption of risk (understood as true bodily harm) is a reality of this work, where individuals are expected to often mitigate these risk themselves. Struck by the ways James Foley was celebrated after his grisly death at the hands of ISIS, I was particularly interested in how the various discourses that surround war and conflict reporting render the assumption of risk a desirable, or at the very leas unavoidable, condition to be navigated by those aspiring to seek fame or just secure employment covering war and conflict.
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As journalistic work has become increasingly precarious in recent decades, exposure to risk – that is, true bodily harm – has become a normalized condition for those reporting from conflict zones. This article considers the political economy of risk, paying particular attention to the ways it has been constructed as a desirable and manageable condition for various classes of news workers. The burden of risk is distributed unequally across staff reporters, freelancers, and non-Western local journalists of all stripes, and a persistent discourse of witnessing obscures both these inequities and the structural conditions that allow news organizations to profit from an increased assumption of individual risk. As structural conditions, individual mitigations, and practices of textual commodification are considered and critiqued, the article concludes by identifying specific strategies that push beyond an economic logic, and thus reassert the cultural and political value of conflict and war reporting as a practice that merits protection, regardless of who produces it. Such a critique focuses on developing the discursive tools that allow journalists and outside observers alike to ask ‘who should bear the costs of witnessing?’