10 things journalists should know about fixers: Covering minorities


Especially at its so-called heart, Europe is home to a dizzying array of small communities. Each capital city has its own Turkish neighbourhoods, Jewish neighbourhoods and students’ areas.

All with their own stories.

But these communities can be wary of outsiders. Language barriers abound. Especially in cities outside their normal beats, journalists oftenimage need help going local. That’s where fixers come in.

Mehmet Koksal, 31, has been working as a fixer in Brussels since around 2000, when he started sharing his investigative work on a blog. He grew up in French-speaking Brussels, but both of his parents come from Turkey. He also speaks Dutch and English. After a year studying in St. Petersburg, he speaks Russian.

When he was a recent university graduate working outside the mainstream Belgian press, Koksal used a blog to promote transparency between minority groups in Belgium. He’d translate what was being said by actors in the political sphere, often revealing the efforts of politicians trying to influence voters by way of a different language.

“Most of the time that created a huge controversy,” he says.

He remains well-sourced in Belgium, particularly in minority communities. In addition to working as a fixer for The New York Times and Wall Street Journal Europe, he is a self-employed freelance journalist working for several news agencies as well as Courier International and IPS. He also works as an official translator for police and judges in Belgium.

Tips from Koksal and other journalists who have worked with fixers:

1. A good fixer isn’t too hard to find… If you know where to look

Koksal says journalists researching stories about minority issues in Belgium often stumble upon his name. They see he is working for established newspapers.

“The journalists’ world is a small world. If you know someone is a good person to work with, you give the name to your colleague who is coming to Brussels… I’m doing it when I go abroad, call some local contacts to see if they can give me the name of who I should contact.”


2. The motivations of a good fixer should be transparent. Is he in it for love or for money? His reputation should also be easy to ascertain.

Koksal is passionate about investigating where the mainstream press is not allowed. Plus, working with other journalists gives him a chance to learn on the job.

“I’m also receiving ideas for further articles,” he says. “And I never learned so much as when I worked for the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal as a fixer.”


3. A good fixer speaks the language of your sources. A great fixer speaks in an authentic accent and knows local slang. That can mean anything from speaking Russian in Latvia to speaking German with a wicked Turkish accent.

“In some communities, a brown-haired fixer who knows the slang is the most useful,” Koksal says.


4. The fixer should be steeped in the cultural background of your sources. He should anticipate their concerns and be able to address those in an honest, clear fashion.

“Turkish people sometimes seeimage journalists as people who are promoting, who are only doing good coverage to promote a film for the movie industry, or a book for a famous writer,” Koksal says. “The first thing is to explain to those minority groups the idea of journalism, checks and balances, what the idea of transparency is… Most of the time we start from zero. So if you go in with your Ph.D. from a big university and you are expecting the same degree of knowledge, it simply does not work.”

5. A good fixer knows her way around local bureaucracies. She knows how to find birth certificates, religious documents and can unearth driving records.

Koksal worked with Craig Smith from The New York Times to dive into the background of Muriel Degauque, the first European woman to stage a suicide attack in Iraq. He worked to find her family, her friends, where she went to school, how she met her husband, when she converted to Islam, what kind of mosque she attended.

6. Reliable fixers will work with journalists to sync expectations about costs, decorum and safety prior to working together.

“I had an experience working with a fixer in Kashmir a few years ago,” e-mails American photographer Jenna Isaacson Pfueller. “I was paired up with two young men and an older driver. On the second day one of the young men began saying things and making advances I was uncomfortable with. Luckily I was able to quickly find another, female fixer I was much, much more comfortable with. 

My advice would be to get to know your fixers a little bit, or talk with people they’ve worked with in the past before heading places that are even more unfamiliar than where you are. Since you’re trusting and paying this person and will be spending a good deal of time with them, you don’t want the added discomfort of that on top of the work you’re hoping to accomplish.”

7. When fixers are acting as translators, journalists and fixers should be able to communicate well in their bridge language to make sure each question and answer of an interview is clear. Both parties must be free to repeat, rephrase and re-clarify as much as needed.

“Make sure you understand each other perfectly,” e-mails Isabelle Roughol from aimage newspaper in Southeast Asia. “Even if it means repeating and reformulating your question five times, or making them repeat their answers five times. This is especially true when their English (or your whatever-language-they-speak) isn’t top-notch. One mistranslation can mean huge libel. Don’t take your chances.”

8. Both parties should agree to the specific uses of the material.

“I was raised in Europe, educated in the US and now work in Southeast Asia,” Roughol writes. “So I’ve had a chance to see how much journalism ethics differ from one place to the next. Make sure you and your fixer or translator are on the same page and comfortable with how each operates.”

9. Journalists should have realistic expectations of their fixers, not expecting them to construct a story.

“I’m not a magic man,” Koksal says. “Don’t call me if you have no idea what you want to write… It’s annoying when a journalist comes to Belgium and he didn’t do anything to research the subject he’s writing about.”

10. Approach the fixer with a long-term relationship in mind. Journalists who come to town looking for a one-off scoop will not be as successful as those who cultivate professional relationships.

“As a journalist you have to work on the long run,” Koksal says. “I’m living longtime relationships with my sources… and I’m not giving all their information all at once.”


Flickr images from users Ole Begemann, cicilief and bicyclemark