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‘Fixer’ killed in Ukraine was doing a vital, thankless journalism job

Sasha Kuvshynova was just one of the legions of savvy local assistants foreign correspondents rely upon to navigate unfamiliar terrain.

Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova, here assisting correspondent Trey Yingst with an interview, was working for Fox News when she was killed in Ukraine along with a cameraman, Pierre Zakrzewski, left. (Fox News/Reuters)
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Miguel Angel Vega became a “fixer” for journalists visiting his native Mexico in 2010 to raise money for a film project. Like most starting out in this specialized branch of journalism, he knew little about the job and naively expected to be a “glorified chauffeur meets tour guide meets translator” for foreign reporters.

That expectation was shattered the moment a drug cartel enforcer shoved a gun in his face.

“Prove you’re journalists, because if you’re not, you’re going to die here and now,” the gunman screamed at Vega, who had just driven a European news crew down a back street in Sinaloa state. He survived the encounter by very slowly pulling an old press pass from his shirt.

Fixers perform one of journalism’s most anonymous and thankless jobs — and one of its most dangerous. The risks became tragically apparent last week, when a Russian projectile killed 24-year-old Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova, who was working as a fixer for Fox News in Ukraine. The same strike killed Fox cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski and seriously injured correspondent Benjamin Hall.

Fixers get called when foreign journalists know they’re in over their heads. Reporters who travel to war zones and other foreign assignments tend to have limited knowledge of the region’s language, culture and geography, and few connections to the officials, experts, dissidents and occasionally criminals they need in order to report their story. The fixers might have backgrounds in journalism, like Vega, or simply be well-connected locals in need of cash.

“It was the only way to make enough money to bring my project to fruition,” said Vega, a former newspaper reporter who tried to make his fixing services more valuable by developing contacts in Sinaloa’s drug trade. He used the money that news organizations paid him to write, produce and direct his third film, “Before the Morning Comes,” in 2014.

In 2020, star CNN foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward traced the operations of a Russian troll factory to a subcontractor in Accra, Ghana. She reported that workers there produced thousands of social media posts designed to influence the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

Ward told The Washington Post that a key interview with one of the operation’s employees had been arranged by her fixer, Manasseh Azure Awuni, a Ghanaian investigative journalist who knew a friend of a friend inside the troll operation.

“That inside knowledge allowed us to make contact with the employee who ultimately opened the whole story for us,” Ward said from London, where she had recently returned to after covering the war in Ukraine. “Without that contact, I don’t think we would have been able to fully expose the operation or its leadership.”

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Other news organizations covering the war in Ukraine have turned to Serhiy Morgunov. A native of the capital city, Kyiv, he knows the language and the territory and has contacts among members of Ukraine’s federal government, including its Defense Ministry — critical sources for reporters hoping to understand a bewildering and fast-changing conflict.

His clients include The Post, the New York Times, Vice and a German soccer magazine that reported on the team FC Mariupol, whose city is besieged by Russian forces. Morgunov said he also worked as a fixer on an upcoming documentary about the war directed by Sean Penn.

Before the war, Morgunov worked mainly as a photographer, a journalist and a coordinator for TV and movie productions. The latter role, he said, requires many of the same skills as a fixer. “I solve complicated things,” he said from Lviv in western Ukraine. “After working on productions, I knew how to make things happen.”

Fixers don’t generally advertise themselves as security consultants, but Morgunov will advise clients when he thinks they’re getting into a dangerous situation. TV crews often need to be close to the action to get dramatic footage, he noted, and “some journalists put fixers into danger when it is not necessary.”

“I will warn,” he said. “I will say, ‘I’m not going to go there.’”

Vega — who has worked for CBS, Al Jazeera, ESPN, Univision, the Los Angeles Times and other news organizations — said his job is to “open the doors, so the journalists that come to Mexico can access poppy or marijuana fields, crystal meth labs or fentanyl labs. Anything that is illegal, they come to me because I can deliver.”

In a 2020 memoir about his work titled “El Fixer,” Vega wrote that “what a fixer provides is unparalleled knowledge of the subject at hand and, more importantly, access to people and places that nobody else has. A good fixer presents options A, B and C, no matter what the client is looking for.”

Sometimes the job means telling an overly ambitious journalist what is not possible, said Vicente Calderon, a veteran fixer based in Tijuana, Mexico. “I can’t tell you how many times I have 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 riskier behavior. By doing research and arranging interviews before they arrive, he said, a good fixer can help them steer clear of peril and make the best use of their time on the ground

Some fixers have even been known to suggest story ideas, essentially collaborating with the reporter — not that readers and viewers will necessarily know it. There is no industry standard for crediting fixers. The Post has given Morgunov several bylines, tag lines and photo credits, but he and his peers commonly work in anonymity.

“With some people I never exist,” Morgunov said. “I was fine with this for some period. But at a certain point, I had to say, ‘Hey, guys, this is not really fair.’ It’s one thing to give people directions. But when you’re proposing [story] ideas and helping them prepare questions, you are part of the story. It’s only fair they mention you.”

Others, such as Calderon, are less concerned. “I am just happy to contribute to making a story better,” he said. Without the fixer, he said, “it is really hard for a foreigner to get the story.”

Vega appreciates having his name included on stories and accepts the risks of the job. His only complaint: “We should get life insurance.”