That expectation was shattered when a drug cartel official pointed a gun in his face.
“Prove that you are journalists, because if you are not, you are going to die here and now,” the gunman shouted at Vega, who had just led a European press team down an alley in the state of Sinaloa. He survived the encounter by very slowly pulling an old press pass from his shirt.
Repairmen do one of the most anonymous and thankless jobs in journalism – and one of the most dangerous. The risks became tragically apparent last week, when a Russian projectile killed 24-year-old Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova, who worked as a fixer for Fox News in Ukraine. The same strike killed Fox cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski and seriously injured correspondent Benjamin Hall.
Fixers are called in when foreign journalists know they are in over their heads. Reporters traveling to war zones and other overseas assignments tend to have limited knowledge of the region’s language, culture and geography, and few connections to government officials, experts, dissidents and sometimes the criminals they need to tell their story. Repairmen can have a background in journalism, like Vega, or just be well-connected locals in need of the money.
“It was the only way to earn enough money to carry out my project,” said Vega, a former journalist who tried to add value to his fixing services by developing contacts in Sinaloa’s drug trade. He used money given to him by news agencies to write, produce and direct his third film, “Before the Morning Comes,” in 2014.
In 2020, CNN foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward traced the operations of a russian troll factory to a contractor in Accra, Ghana. She reported that workers there have produced thousands of social media posts designed to influence the future US presidential election.
Ward told the Washington Post that a key interview with one of the operation’s employees was arranged by his fixer, Manasseh Azure Awuni, a Ghanaian investigative journalist who knew a friend of a friend inside. of the troll operation.
“That inside knowledge allowed us to get in touch with the employee who finally opened up the whole story to us,” Ward said from London, where she had recently returned after covering the war in Ukraine. “Without this contact, I don’t think we would have been able to fully expose the operation or its direction.”
Other news agencies covering the war in Ukraine turned to Serhiy Morgunov. Hailing from the capital, Kyiv, he knows the language and the territory and has contacts among members of Ukraine’s federal government, including its Ministry of Defense – essential sources for journalists hoping to understand a confusing and rapidly evolving conflict. .
His clients include The Post, The New York Times, Vice and a German soccer magazine that has reported on the FC Mariupol team, whose city is besieged by Russian forces. Morgunov said he also worked as a fixer on an upcoming wartime documentary directed by Sean Penn.
Before the war, Morgunov mainly worked as a photographer, journalist and coordinator of television and film productions. The latter role, he said, requires many of the same skills as a repairman. “I solve complicated things,” he said from Lviv in western Ukraine. “After working on productions, I knew how to make things happen.”
Repairmen don’t usually pose as safety consultants, but Morgunov will advise customers when he thinks they’re in a dangerous situation. TV crews often have to be close to the action to get dramatic footage, he noted, and “some reporters put fixers at risk when it’s not necessary.”
“I will warn,” he said. “I’ll say, ‘I’m not going to go.'”
Vega – who has worked for CBS, Al Jazeera, ESPN, Univision, the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets – said his job is to “open doors, so journalists who come to Mexico can access poppy or marijuana fields, crystal meth labs or fentanyl labs. Anything illegal, they come to me because I can deliver.
In a 2020 dissertation on his work titled “The fixer,” Vega wrote that “what a Fixer provides is unparalleled knowledge of the subject matter and, more importantly, access to people and places that no one else has. A good repairer presents options A, B and C, no matter what the customer is looking for.
Sometimes the job is to tell an overambitious journalist what is do not possible, said Vicente Calderon, a veteran repairman based in Tijuana, Mexico. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to set up an interview with a drug lord,” he said wryly.
Calderon, a journalist who has worked for NPR, the BBC and “60 Minutes”, among others, noted that visiting reporters often have limited time to gather information for a story, which can lead to more risky behavior. . By researching and arranging interviews before they arrive, he said, a good fixer can help them avoid danger and get the most out of their time in the field.
Some fixers have even been known to suggest story ideas, essentially collaborating with the reporter — not that readers and viewers necessarily know that. There is no industry standard for crediting repairers. The Post has given Morgunov several bylines, slogans and photo credits, but he and his peers generally work anonymously.
“With some people I never exist,” Morgunov said. “I was okay with that for a while. But at some point I had to say, ‘Hey guys, that’s not really fair.’ It’s one thing to give directions to people. But when you propose [story] ideas and by helping them prepare questions, you are part of the story. It’s just that they mention you.
Others, like Calderon, are less concerned. “I’m just happy to help make a story better,” he said. Without the fixer, he said, “it’s really hard for an outsider to understand the story.”
Vega appreciates having her name on the stories and accepts the risks of the job. His only complaint: “We should take out life insurance.