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Freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld interviews a Syrian refugee. [Courtesy of the National Film Board and Santiago Bertolino]

The room was silent as freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld described the horror of seeing a truck filled with corpses.

Rosenfeld said he was in in Dar Bizmar, Iraq, when he saw the bodies of ISIS fighters loosely tied to the bumper of two flatbed trucks mounted with heavy machine guns. Dangling hands and feet dragged on the road.

“I don’t really prepare for [seeing] these things,” Rosenfeld told more than 100 first-year Ryerson journalism students and members of the public. “You try to understand what you’re getting into by knowing as much about what is happening in the area, what kinds of atrocities have been committed.”

Rosenfeld, a Canadian freelance reporter who has worked in the Middle East since 2007, spoke to students on Oct. 27 following a screening of the new National Film Board (NFB) documentary Freelancer on the Front Lines. Filmmaker Santiago Bertolino followed Rosenfeld between 2013 and 2016 as he pitched stories to mainstream news outlets, worked with local fixers, interviewed sources and navigated war zones in Iraq and Syria.

Rosenfeld said the role of a journalist is to report the truth so that the public feels a sense of responsibility to act upon it.

“What I fundamentally believe is that the role of a journalist is to be honest and tell people exactly what is happening in the world from the perspective of those who are most affected by the issues and the policies,” he said. “The people have to be able to … understand the way the world is. The role of the journalist is to give information so that they are responsible to do something about it.”

Rosenfeld has written about people whose lives have been affected by violence in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Turkey. His work has been published with the Nation, the Daily Beast and Al Jazeera.

If people do not feel motivated to push for changes after reading his stories, he said, he does not consider his work to be useful.

Rosenfeld said the NFB documentary highlights how important it is for journalists to be present on the ground, particularly in an era when mainstream news outlets seem to be increasingly reliant on press releases.

“It is important that people receive a perspective that isn’t completely beholden,” Rosenfeld said.

Watch Jesse Rosenfeld’s full Q&A below:

Special to the RJRC

Freelance journalists starting out in the business should be wary of working for exposure instead of money, experts said in a recent Ryerson Journalism Research Centre webinar.

The discussion, featuring Lauren McKeon, author and digital editor of The Walrus, vice president of the Canadian Freelance Union Ethan Clarke and Daily Xtra associate editor Eternity Martis, centred on how to navigate a freelance career in journalism and make tough decisions like determining what pay is too low and how to negotiate contracts. The conversation was directed by Ryerson School of Journalism professor Lisa Taylor and broadcast to an audience of mostly journalism students.

“A lot of folks talk about the quality of journalism these days and ask about why it’s not as good as years in the past, and a lot of it has to do with the rate of pay,” Clarke said. “Quality work takes time.”

Free work privileges the people who can afford to work under those conditions, he said, adding that it is important for journalists to do their best to combat this problem in the media industry. Although it can be difficult to resist, Clarke suggested writers should not only avoiding unpaid work but also rates of pay that are too low.

“(Journalism) takes real skill and unfortunately, through dynamics on the internet, that’s been cheapened,” Clarke said, noting that the internet has produced many self-proclaimed journalists. “We’ve really got to fight to bring back that respect and the value of paying for good journalism.”

McKeon urged journalists to wage the battle for better remuneration by talking to each other about pay and bad actors in the publishing industry.

“It’s up to us to start breaking the silence on how much we do get paid, what publications we maybe have challenges with,” she said. “It’s really uncomfortable to talk about how much you get paid and all that sort of stuff, but it’s important that we better the industry.”

That said, the question of what is acceptable pay for freelancers is often a personal choice that writers need to determine for themselves, McKeon said. In her own freelance work, she said she accepted low pay early on in her career to work for publications she believed in.

“Everyone has to weigh how much they want to do the story and how much they want to work with an organization, what it means to them, what type of journalism they want to do, what’s important to them,” McKeon said. “It’s all about gauging what kind of journalism you want to do and what type of career you want to build.”

Martis emphasized that freelancers “will not be fed by exposure.” She suggested that freelance journalists set up a budget that includes how many stories they’re going to write each day and what kind of stories those will be. After completing her Master of Journalism degree at Ryerson, Martis said she did a variety of freelance work, including shorter pieces for publications like Complex magazine and content for non-journalistic groups like the YWCA. She continues to freelance while working at the Daily Xtra.

She said that sometimes making money as a freelancer means doing a variety of work.

“It all really comes down to knowing the publications you want to write for,” Martis said, “but it also comes down to choosing places that maybe you’re not so interested in, if that’s what you need to do to pay the bills.”

Clarke said that if journalists are struggling with pay, contracts or any other of the difficult aspects of freelancing, it’s essential to remember that working as an individual doesn’t leave you alone.

“Stop thinking of yourself as an individual, you’re part of a group,” Clarke said. “There are other workers all around you, find ways to unite with them.”

The Canadian Freelance Union offers services that include support for journalists who are having difficulty getting paid, contract advice, health plans and other insurance options, press cards and more. Find these and other resources on the CFU website.