Backpack Journalism or Video Journalism: What’s the Difference?

WASHINGTON, DC, 21 October 2010 — Following is part of a brief discussion I had this week on Facebook with Brandon Tompkins, a friend who asked me about the difference between Backpack Journalism and Video Journalism. Tompkins lives in Dallas, Texas, and is a student at Tarrant County College, majoring in Radio/TV Broadcasting. See Below is my initial response to his question. Bits of the conversation follow. (Photo above by W. Eugene Smith from “Country Doctor.”)

ANSWER: I teach backpack journalism and focus on the visual storytelling process. We don’t cover breaking news. We don’t do stand-ups. Backpack journalism is built more on the foundation of documentary photojournalism, than it is on the tradition or style of the 6 o’clock news.

Hope this helps.


Bill Gentile

QUESTION: So is there now a separation in terms? Videojournalist is more TV news style reporting and Backpack Journalist separates itself to be the long style in the field documentary journalist in the spirit of Gene Smith?

ANSWER: I certainly define the two differently.

I believe this distinction is important in that video journalism is more the “convergence” journalism that we’ve been hearing about for so long and that is appropriate for breaking news. Small teams of people accomplish what was once done by larger teams with bigger and more sophisticated cameras.

Backpack journalism is much more about granting the practitioner the time as well as the responsibility of deep personal authorship to get to the heart of a story. Our stories are character-driven as opposed to thematic. The methodology does not work in all instances. We don’t do breaking news. We don’t do stand-ups.

Many of the skills practiced by backpack journalists are, of course, interchangeable with those used by video journalists. But still, there is a distinction between the two.

Your comparison with W. Eugene Smith (commonly regarded as the Father of the Photo Essay) is accurate in the sense that Life magazine would never have sent Smith out on assignment with a correspondent or a producer.

Much as the name implies, backpack journalists go on assignment alone, with everything they need to execute their tasks in the pack on their backs. If you haven’t done so already, take a look at my piece, “Afghanistan: The Forgotten War,” broadcast by NOW on PBS. I spent three weeks, alone, with Marines in the Helmand River Valley. Last year I was nominated for a national Emmy Award for the piece. This 23-minute doc, I feel, embodies the style, the power and the potential of backpack journalism.


Bill Gentile

QUESTION: Thank you.

My goal after I did the newspaper photoJ thing was to be more in the ideal of W. Eugene Smith…not just a solo act but the fact that he believed that some stories, in order to do them right, you need to spend a lot of time with the subject (case in point the essay of the Country Doctor, Smith lived with the doctor 24/7)…I guess it is becoming like in the still news photog days of calling a News photog a photojournalist vs a photog that works for a mag/essays a Documentary photographer.

ANSWER: I do think it advisable to maintain a distinction between the two terms…I hope this helps.


Bill Gentile