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Fixing Stories

July 8, 2022 at 2:02 pm

  • Book Author(s): Noah Amir Arjomand
  • Published Date: March 2022
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Hardback: 288 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1316518007

Arjomand takes us into the critical and largely invisible work of the media fixer. Defining what  fixers do is difficult as their role can be quite fluid but, essentially, the general idea is when a journalist visits a country or an area they are not local to or familiar with, they often hire a local intermediary to help them find and do stories. These fixers can perform a number of different tasks, from finding interviewees, arranging travel or helping the reporter to understand the local context. Studying Turkish, Kurdish, Afghan and Syrian fixers in Turkiye, Noah Amir Arjomand takes us into their world. Arjomand himself has been on both ends of the study, both as a journalist hiring fixers and as a fixer being hired by foreign reporters.  “Caught in the middle of local and global interests and values, fixers mediate between clients and sources in ways that reconcile political and cultural conflicts and transmit information across their divides.”

Fixing Stories seeks to understand the social origins of why people become fixers, their position within journalism and the moral choices they make, how they transmit information and how they fit into the global news economy. The relationship between insider and outsider plays a prominent role in the lives of fixers; often fixers are picked because they are insiders in certain cultures, yet they are often expected to also be outsider enough from the story to appear objective in the International press. These expectations place an unusual contradictory burden on fixers, not placed on foreign correspondence themselves. Take the story of Nur, an English-speaking Kurdish leftist from Diyarbakir. Becoming a fixer was driven by her political beliefs and also wanting to serve her cause. Nur was a major asset for international media wanting to cover Kurds in Turkiye, especially in Diyarbakir, as there are not many local English speakers who can do the job. A foreign reporter named Alison, who got Nur into fixing, loved all the access she got from Nur, from left wing Kurdish nationalist sources to Nur’s ability to translate both the words and the emotional state of the interviewees. Despite this, “Alison thought of Nur as an activist rather than a professional journalist, she also considered Nur biased, too close to the story …”

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The blurred role and abilities of a fixer means journalists are often eager to distance themselves from them, or put boundaries between what they do and what the fixer does. In Fixing Stories we encounter the stories of Burcu and Elif. Both women have lived in both Turkiye and the United States and understand both cultures; Burcu has worked for an American TV station in the US and was also a highly successful journalist in Turkiye. However, being a successful journalist in Turkiye did not mean much to American media outlets coming to Istanbul to report, and so Burcu had to work her way up from fixer back to producer, after taking a job in Turkiye with an American TV channel.

However, once getting to a position where she is accepted as a ‘real journalist’, Burcu is keen to ring fence herself off from the work of a fixer. When discussing the work of Elif, a fixer Burcu often employed, she claimed the difference was “producers know what duration and format the organisation requires for segments, how to navigate the organisation’s bureaucratic and technological process and what story frames the organisation expects.” But as the conversation unfolds, and reflecting the state of journalism in Turkiye, Burcu says, “The quality of people we work with here generally is really not that good. Whether it is cameramen or producers – who are not really producers – something’s always lacking.” Noah notes that by “quality” or “something is always lacking”, had nothing to do with neither their technical knowledge nor their ability to get stories, when Burcu said lacking, she meant their affinity and knowledge of American and western culture and expectations. And that is often the bind fixers find themselves in. As with the case of the Syrian fixers’ stories in the book, a fixer needs to know how to feed the prejudices of American editors and frame stories the way they want it.

There are a number of amusing incidents where a fixer cannot get access to a story and so gets a relative to pretend to be relevant to the story. One Syrian fixer got a female relative to wear a niqab and pretend to be a former member of ISIS’s female police brigade. While stories like this are funny to read, there are more serious ones where reporters ask the fixer to do things which would risk their lives, which causes a number of moral and ethical issues, of which Noah dives into. Framing stories for western audiences can also lead to reinforcing stereotypes, and fixers who try to challenge this are sometimes told off or attacked. Fixing Stories offers a thoughtful and immersive dive into the stories of fixers, the dilemmas they face and how they try to navigate cultural and media expectations. The work of fixers are often invisible, but one can hope with a study like this there shall be more light on the vital work that they do.

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