Defining Backpack Journalism — Again

WASHINGTON, DC, 29 August 2010 — There still is a lot of discussion and debate about backpack journalism, what it is, what it looks like, in which instances it should be utilized, when it is appropriate and effective. So I think it time now to define this methodology again, in greater detail.

Backpack journalism is the craft of one properly trained professional using a hand-held digital video camera to tell stories in a more immediate, more intimate fashion than is achievable using a team that includes camera person, sound person, correspondent and producer. Backpack journalists do it all and, most importantly, we make the pictures, which are the driving force of visual communication. (There’s a reason they call it tele-VISION.) In the field, a backpack journalist shoots, acquires sound, produces, reports, interviews. We write the script. In some cases we narrate the piece. Depending on circumstances, we either edit the piece on our own, or we sit side-by-side with an editor assigned to the task.

Backpack journalism is not the 6 o’clock news reported by a single, multi-tasking journalist. It is a character-driven methodology with a specific approach and application that yields unique results and that does not work in all situations.

In an early edition of a white paper for The Backpack Journalism Project at American University’s School of Communication, Tom Kennedy deepened this definition by calling the methodology, “an alternative approach to journalistic story-telling that fuses audio and video reporting, with one person functioning to do the reporting, photography, narration, production and editing tasks to create a finished product.”

Kennedy continued:

“It is a method using visual journalism to create powerful, intimate stories that take people beyond the boundary of their own life experience and connects them with the currents, forces and situations reshaping our world on a daily basis. Using multiple media tools, backpack journalists create content that engages audience intellect and emotion simultaneously.

“The fruits of the approach occur because a journalist is being given the tools, time, and freedom to assume the responsibilities of personal authorship to craft a story with value to an audience. Personal authorship is rooted in intimate connection with the story’s subjects. That in turn permits extended periods of observation that get to the heart of a story.

“Because of changes in the technology used to create journalism, changes in methods of content delivery to the audience, and economic pressures to streamline news gathering costs, backpack journalism has arrived as an alternative process for creating documentary-style narrative journalism.”

Backpack journalism neither looks like the 6 o’clock news, nor is it based on the foundations of the 6 o’clock news. Rather, the methodology is built on the foundation of still photography. More specifically, documentary still photography, in which the practitioner has the luxury of time to document character and story development while altering the dynamics of character and story as little as possible.

I call it “participatory observation.” But I’ll talk about that in another post.

— Bill Gentile