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Correcting an earlier Nieman Watchdog story

COMMENTARY | May 17, 2010

Paul Raffaele, a freelance writer, was badly injured in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan while on assignment for Smithsonian magazine in 2008. This story corrects errors that appeared in a Nieman Watchdog posting, April 2, 2010. The errors in the Watchdog story were not present in the original version of the story, published on www.StinkyJournalism.org, December 14, 2009. Nieman Watchdog regrets the errors.

By Katie Rolnick

When Smithsonian Magazine editor-in-chief Carey Winfrey accepted Paul Raffaele’s first pitch in the summer of 2004, the veteran freelance writer was relieved. “I had a couple of years where I really didn’t have that much work because my type of assignment costs money,” Raffaele explains over the phone from his home in Sydney, Australia.
Raffaele’s type of assignment is what he calls “adventure with meaning.” Over the course of about four years freelancing for Smithsonian Magazine, Raffaele traveled all over the world reporting stories. The magazine’s Web site has a special section titled, “Touring the Globe with Journalist Paul Raffaele,” where his features (more than a dozen during his tenure) are collected. A sampling conveys his swashbuckling sensibility: The Forbidden City in Beijing; Polo in Pakistan; and Great White Sharks off the coast of South Africa.
  • There are three pieces of shrapnel in Paul Raffaele’s chest, not one, as an earlier Nieman Watchdog story stated incorrectly.
  • The accompanying story notes that Raffaele experiences what he says is constant ringing in his ears. Earlier, Nieman Watchdog stated incorrectly that Raffaele said he had frequent ringing in his ears.
  • The accompanying story notes that Raffaele had a close encounter with a charging elephant in Kenya. The earlier version mistakenly stated that this incident occurred in Ethiopia.
  • The earlier story understated what it would have cost Raffaele to purchase accident insurance on his own. It should have stated that accident insurance, if purchased by Raffaele, would have been prohibitive, costing more than his fee and expenses for the assignment. 
  • The suicide bombing took place near a police base, not a barracks, as the earlier story stated.
        Nieman Watchdog regrets the errors.
So when Winfrey responded the day after Raffaele pitched his first story—on illegal wildlife hunting in the Central African Republic (published as “Stop the Carnage” in January 2005)—Raffaele felt optimistic about the relationship. Before long, he was a regular contributor to the monthly magazine, writing three or four features a year.
Then, about four years later, in the spring of 2008, Raffaele pitched a story on poppy eradication in Afghanistan. To report the story, he applied to go on an opium field eradication mission in Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan, organized by the U.S. embassy in Kabul. He was to arrive in late April, but was informed that there wouldn’t be any missions at that time. Instead, the embassy suggested that he visit Nangarhar province, on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, where Governor Gul Agha Sherzai was independently organizing opium eradication missions. Raffaele thought this was an interesting angle on his story and made arrangements.
On April 29, joined by photojournalist Stephen Dupont and traveling with an Afghan police convoy, Raffaele set out from Jalalabad. About forty minutes into the ride, the convoy pulled up to the gate of a police base in a small village called Khogyani in a district of the same name. Raffaele waited with Dupont in a car. Then a suicide bomber detonated his charge.
Raffaele described the event in an email:
“...I heard a loud metallic sound, a light flash and then the light dimmed to semi-darkness. I felt a very strong pain in my right elbow where I later learned a piece of shrapnel from the bomb entered…I felt a dripping at the back on my neck, put up a hand expecting to feel solid skull and only felt mush. It was where the shrapnel smashed into the brain.”
Dupont escaped with only minor injuries, blocked from the force of the blast by Raffaele’s body. Reports vary, but at least 18 people were killed, including about 12 police officers, and dozens were injured. According to Raffaele, soon after the bombingan Afghan police officer jumped into the car and sped him to a hospital in Jalalabad. He was then taken by helicopter to the Bagram Air Base where they treated his wounds.
Three pieces of shrapnel still rest in Raffaele’s brain, another piece in his elbow, and three in his chest. In the immediate aftermath of the blast, he was prescribed Dilantin, an anticonvulsant often used to prevent seizures after neurosurgery. Raffaele took a daily dosage until December 2008; if he ever experiences a seizure, he will have to resume taking it.
The Dilantin put Raffaele in a fog. He calls it the “zombie pill.” His general practitioner in Australia, Dr. Colin Holliday, explained by email that symptoms include drowsiness, mental slowing, and tiredness. Plagued by fatigue, Raffaele’s ebullient personality was nowhere to be found. “My daughter said I was like a shell,” he says. In the first weeks after the bombing, Raffaele says his vision was a mess. He couldn’t see faces and, when looking at a street sign, “I could see part of it,” he says, “and then it would unfold like a scroll across my eyes.” As the swelling in his brain reduced, the initial, severe symptoms subsided and Raffaele hoped that he would make a full recovery. But by August, he suspected permanent damage.
Today Raffaele, 65, experiences what he says is constant ringing in his ears that often keeps him from sleeping at night, unsteadiness on his feet, and he suffers from hemianopia, a condition that cuts off about half of his field of vision. He can no longer trek through rough environments, working 12-14 hours a day in the field to write the adventure stories that were his calling card, and livelihood, for more than thirty years.
Raffaele is now pursuing legal action against Smithsonian, which he feels should have provided additional compensation for his injuries. He and his lawyer, Anthony Elia, are arguing that Raffaele believed he had insurance because of conversations he says he had with Winfrey, which would have provided him with financial support in the event that he was seriously injured while working. They are also arguing that providing personal accident insurance would be considered a “duty of care.”

Before working for Smithsonian magazine, Raffaele worked for Reader’s Digest in Australia, and before that he was an Australian Broadcasting Corporation foreign correspondent in Asia.
Although he admits that the Afghan poppy eradication story was far more dangerous than any other he’d reported, he says he took the same precautions he had always taken to ensure his safety. “Generally I was very careful,” he says. “I would check out a story before I went on it to make sure that I was not in a dangerous situation or that I was with someone who was a world expert so that I was fairly covered.”
Twice before, Raffaele had been in danger while reporting for Smithsonian. In December 2005, after getting badly bitten by sand flies while reporting on bonobos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Raffaele says he approached Winfrey about the magazine providing him with accident insurance. But Raffaele was also concerned about jeopardizing his relationship with the magazine. “It was only my third or fourth assignment,” he says. “I didn’t press too strongly for something that would be expensive because I wanted to continue to work with this magazine that was sending me outto do stories that I wanted to do.”
Then, while reporting in Kenya in 2007, Raffaele had a close encounter with a charging elephant. As he told Peter Carlson, a Washington Post reporter who profiled him that year, “…the driver put [the car] into reverse and then he tried to go forward and the wheels started to spin and the bloody elephant’s coming at us.”
According to Raffaele, Carlson asked whether he had insurance and when Raffaele told him he wasn’t sure, Carlson suggested he should check. Soon after, Raffaele says he had a second, more explicit conversation with Winfrey about insurance. He claims that Winfrey assured him they would provide coverage. But Raffaele didn’t get the agreement in writing and there was no mention of insurance in his contract for the Afghanistan poppy eradication story.
When Raffaele spoke with Winfrey, he wasn’t looking for health insurance– something most freelancers know would not be provided by publications. As an Australian citizen, Raffaele has public heath care in his home country. [Editor’s note: Raffaele disputes this, saying he asked for comprehensive insurance, including coverage of medical bills.] And his treatment at Bagram Air Base was complimentary, standard practice at the base, which treats those wounded in the conflict zone (including local civilians, journalists, and military personnel), according to Lt. Col. Mark Wright, a Department of Defense spokesman who covers Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Raffaele needed insurance that would provide a substantial payout, enough to support him in case of a serious accident, which is precisely the situation he’s in now. There are numerous companies that provide this type of coverage, in a variety of forms.
AKE Group is a leading insurance and hostile environment training company for journalists and media employees. AKE’s flagship course, launched in the early 1990s, is used by many major media outlets to prepare journalists for work in hostile environments – everything from wars to natural disasters. Along with five days of training, the course includes one year of insurance coverage for those who pass the accreditation exams.
According to Betham Haines, AKE’s training coordinator, the course normally costs £1,970 ($2,965). Freelancers can get a significantly reduced rate of only £300 ($452), which is partially subsidized by the Rory Peck Trust, a London-based organization that supports freelancers and their families, particularly those injured or killed while reporting.
But freelancers who enroll at this discounted rate don’t get the insurance coverage, Haines explains. In order to be eligible for AKE’s Personal Accident insurance, they would have to pay an additional £80, or $120, to take the accreditation exams and would then have to pay for the insurance out-of-pocket.
Fraser Newton, Director of AKE Special Risks Limited, says that people generally take out five to ten times their annual salary; journalists traveling to high-risk areas like Iraq and Afghanistan would want to take out more substantial policies ranging from half a million to a million British pounds. While the costs of any policy have many variables, Newton estimates that for someone reporting in Afghanistan, half a million pounds worth of coverage might cost around £2,000 per week. Because of these steep fees, Fraser says that most freelancers go without personal accident insurance.
Derek Horton, vice president of the Boston-based insurance company Thomas E. Sears, Inc., works with both print and broadcast media outlets. Thomas E. Sears offers Business Travel Accident Insurance with a war risk component (the equivalent of AKE’s Personal Accident Insurance). Horton says $250,000 worth of coverage for a week of this insurance could cost anywhere from $2,500 to $3,000. Horton explained that he has worked with news organizations purchasing insurance for a freelancer, but says it’s not something they automatically provide. “I think it comes up when it’s part of a contract,” he explains. “They won’t just offer it, unless the freelancer starts asking some questions.”
For freelancers who can’t get insurance through a publication, AKE offers up to £150,000 of medical and medical evacuation coverage for £250 per year, and the company lets individuals pay the premium for this coverage over a period of time.
Only Winfrey and Raffaele know whether or not the editor verbally promised to provide Raffaele with insurance. According to AKE and Derek Horton, that would have been an unconventional benefit for a freelance writer. Nonetheless, Raffaele’s situation raises an important question: Are publications ethically responsible for providing such protection?
“Ideally, there should be no difference in the way freelance and staff reporters are treated,” says Elisa Tinsley, Director of the Knight International Journalism Fellowship. She explains that without a prior agreement, a publication may not be contractually or legally responsible for providing support. But she thinks they do have an ethical responsibility. “I believe that the employer has a responsibility to assist anyone who suffers an injury while working." However, Tinsley also points out, “The key question is whether the assistance should or can be indefinite.”
Smithsonian magazine paid Raffaele his full fee of $8,000 and covered his $8,261 of expenses. (He was allotted $6,500 before leaving and had to have all receipts approved by the magazine. Raffaele says he completed the poppy eradication story after returning to Australia but that he had lost his field journal in the bombing and Smithsonian, unable to fact check, didn’t run the story.) Additionally, the magazine paid $17,900 to have Raffaele transported and escorted back to Australia.
In response to a demand letter from Raffaele’s lawyer, Anthony Elia, indicating Raffaele’s intention to pursue legal action, Smithsonian threatened to “seek reimbursement” for the $17,900 fee.
Smithsonian is a monthly magazine with a readership of nearly 7 million (an estimate based on circulation of just over 2 million)—and only one staff writer. “It’s an economic question,” Winfrey says, adding that staff writers are more common at weekly publications that produce content on a rapid turnaround. Today, staff positions are disappearing, squeezed out by recession-sized budgets and the shifting media landscape. Journalists used to the comfort and safety of full-time employment are forced to fend for themselves as freelancers. So how can they avoid the situation that Raffaele now faces?
In order to get a fair shake, Amy Green, chairwoman of the Society of Professional Journalists Freelance Committee, says, “You are your own best advocate. You’re a business person and have to stand up for yourself. No one else is going to do it for you.”
Green suggests that verbal agreements, like those that Raffaele alleges to have had with Winfrey, should be followed by a written confirmation. “If someone tells me something verbally, a lot of times I will hang up the phone and send an email to the editor saying, ‘As we discussed, you will provide…’”
Green also contends that while freelancers shouldn’t expect insurance from a publication, they can expect compensation that allows them to purchase their own coverage. “If you’re freelancing and you get paid $30, $50, $75 an hour, that might seem like a lot to someone with a full-time job,” she explains. “But that person with a full time job gets everything provided by the employer. For a freelancer, the pay rate pays for time and supplies. For a journalist who goes into these dangerous situations and needs to buy additional insurance coverage…the publication should pay an even higher rate to allow the freelancer to buy that.”
But asking for more money or additional benefits can be uncomfortable for freelancers who live assignment to assignment and don’t want to risk spoiling a successful working Raffaele says that if he were ever able to work again, he would undoubtedly ask for insurance on high-risk assignments and would make sure to get the agreement in writing.
Despite his current situation, he doesn’t feel that it would have been appropriate to ask for more money to cover his own accident insurance. He says that he was comfortable getting paid a standard fee, no matter how risky the story. “My understanding of it, and this was the way that I operated, was that it all balances out. There are fun stories like the Forbidden City in Beijing, where the only danger is an overload of caffeine,” he says. “I would not ask for any more compensation for a dangerous job because I think it’s not fair to a magazine. As I say, I get the good and the tough.”
Winfrey agrees. When asked whether the magazine uses insurance cost estimates to determine writer’s fees Winfrey said, “No, it doesn’t work that way. We have a scale that we pay writers based on what kind of work they’ve done for us in the past, how long they’ve written for us, and such. I don’t think insurance plays into that directly.” (The editor-in-chief wouldn’t comment on Raffaele’s situation specifically, because of the pending legal action, but was able to speak more generally about the magazine and its relationship with writers.)
Although Raffaele doesn’t think his fee should’ve been higher, he does feel that the magazine should have provided accident insurance and should be assisting him more now. “Smithsonian enjoyed the successes of my stories, so my feeling is that they should also share in the burden that I now have. I went off to Kabul in partnership with them…it’s kind of implicit that they will look after you.”
Some publications do provide more support than Smithsonian has for Raffaele. A spate of kidnappings in Iraq and Afghanistan has demonstrated that major news outlets are willing to invest resources to help their reporters, even freelancers. When New York Times writer David Rohde and Tahir Ludin, an Afghan reporter assisting and translating for Rohde, were abducted in Afghanistan in November 2008, the paper worked to find and rescue both men. And Jill Carroll was a freelance reporter for The Christian ScienceMonitor when she was kidnapped in Iraq in January 2006. The magazine worked around the clock, dedicating time and money, to ensuring Carroll’s safe return home. (Rohde, Ludin and Carroll all eventually escaped their captors.)
The nearly 100 news organizations who are members of the International News Safety Institute agree to follow INSI’s safety code, which includes among its tenets that “All journalists should be afforded personal insurance while working in hostile areas, including cover against personal injury and death. There should be no discrimination between staff and freelancers.”
Soon after the bombing, Raffaele received a hand-written note from Smithsonian magazine’s publisher, Kerry Bianchi. “We of course admire the great work you have done for Smithsonian,” he wrote, “but an encounter such as this reminds us of what is truly important…We’re grateful for your return and are with you on your road to recovery.”
Raffaele says that Winfrey never called him after the bombing and wouldn’t meet with him face to face in June of 2008, when Raffaele was in New York promoting his book Among the Cannibals (Smithsonian, June 2008). Winfrey says that after Raffaele threatened legal action he was advised not to communicate with the writer. (Editor’s note: Winfrey, seeing these remarks in Nieman Watchdog, wrote in an email that he didn’t phone Raffaele “in the days and weeks after the bombing because he told me he was sleeping ‘most of the time.’” Winfrey said the two stayed in touch by email until lawyers told him to stop.)
Although Raffaele’s positive spirit has returned, his life is forever changed. He spends most of his time inside, afraid to venture out because of his shaky balance and limited vision; in September he fell while crossing the road. “If I hit my head on the ground it could have very serious consequences given the damage already caused by the shrapnel,” Raffaele says.
In February 2010, Harper Collins released his latest book, Among the Great Apes: Adventures on the "Trail of Our Closest Relatives."Most of the reporting for the book was completed before the bombing but Raffaele had to make one last trip to Borneo four months after his return from Afghanistan to do some final reporting on orangutans. It proved frustrating. “Previously I managed two or three weeks in jungles with ease,” he explains. On this trip, “a single day wore me out.”
These days he’s only able to manage doing stories for TV programs, for which he acts as an “expert.” Because he’s not leading the story, he doesn’t have to arrange any of the logistics and the time commitment is brief.
Winfrey says of his former feature writer, “I don’t think anybody was quite the adventurer that Paul was.”
Raffaele said goodbye to that adventurer in Afghanistan. He hasn’t been able to write features since the bombing and suspects that he won’t be able to ever again. “It was my great love, and I miss it immensely.”
This story first appeared in a lengthier version on the website Stinky Journalism.org.

Posted by Gil Serique
07/30/2011, 09:31 AM

Very good article!I was with Paul Raffaele quite recent in the forbidden zone of the Suruwaha People, deep in the Amazon Region. As an interpreter I had the privilege to hear and translate his amazing stories. He was nice signing his book to my daughter who was still to be born in the following days.

Whatever has happened in Afghanistan affected badly the life of the greatest of all contemporary adventurers. One thing did not change, his strong will for more fascinating journeys. That is what his life is about, That is Paully!!!

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