Reflections on backpack journalism

bp journ
My photo while at work, taken during our I-Witness shoot in the island of Boracay in Aklan Philippines.

Multiskilling in the form of solo journalism, also called ‘one-man-band’ and inspector gadgets (Quinn, 2005) has long existed in documentary filmmaking with young reporters from smaller markets shooting, writing and editing their film with the goal of eventually landing a career in bigger markets (Bock, 2012). The so-called “single-authored news production” also gained greater acceptance in recent years and was institutionalised as a practice in traditional newsrooms. In television, the practice is credited to the personal digital production experiment of Michael Rosenblum, a former CBS news producer turned media consultant who conducted multiskill training for journalists at the BBC (Hemmingway, 2005:79). Rosenblum’s model of “single-authored-news production” is similar to the concept of “backpack journalism” wherein the demarcated roles within the news production are blurred and assumed by a single person (Hemmingway, 2008). Despite being perceived as “jack of all trades and master of none” (Huang et al. 2006), backpack journalists take advantage of being solo in the field. For instance the “cloak of invisibility”, according to Cyndy Green, allows solo journalists to be unnoticeable during coverage (cited in Kennedy, 2010: 3).

My coverage of Typhoon Haiyan in 2014 using backpack technologies was unique compared with my experience working with a television crew. An important consideration for me during my coverage was the selection of equipment to use in my field work.  Because I knew very well what stories to cover, interviews to conduct and places to visit; it worked to think backwards and determine ahead what equipment was necessary for coverage. My experience as a documentary maker and television producer was also my advantage. My backpack reporting toolkit was simplified and mainly comprised of the following:

  • A digital SLR (single-lens reflex) capable of taking quality photographs and high-definition videos
  • A mini personal tripod to create professional looking photos and videos
  • Lavalier or wireless lapel microphone as a primary sound device
  • Charger and extra batteries
  • Smartphone for back-up audio recording
  • Computer installed with photo and editing software
  • Traditional notebook and pen

I reiterate that the list above is not a textbook-based backpack reporting toolkit but rather a product of both my production experience and instinct of what to anticipate in actual location. I considered several issues including the length of international travel from New Zealand to the Philippines, domestic travels within my destination country and the availability of public transport in the Philippines.

These pieces of gadgetry had a huge impact on my own backpack journalism routine. First, field work was quicker. Moving around the typhoon-affected areas became much easier because the equipment was very handy so I was able to move freely and frame the shots effortlessly. Even my choice of using a personal and mini tripod instead of a bigger-although-steadier one was advantageous in many instances such as carrying less weight when travelling and being unnoticeable when filming in public places.  My coverage of two places in the Philippines, the coastal town of Guiuan where the typhoon made its first landfall and the most heavily destructed city of Tacloban, was smoothly completed partly because of the portability of my newsgathering tools. I also gained local insights while taking public transport, which added value to my narrative.

Second, there was autonomy and artistic freedom in backpack journalism. Because I was doing the field work alone, I enjoyed the liberty of deciding merely for myself and not for a news crew. It was convenient in many instances such as deciding the schedule to begin and end the production. There was also no conflict of ideas since every decision was based on my personal judgment.  An important aspect to note was the need to run an editing sequence in mind while shooting. Despite working independently, backpack journalists are able to exercise creativity and greater control of production

Third, small equipment was unobtrusive and did not attract attention from the crowd. In comparison with big cameras that attract attention when filming in public places, the use of smaller equipment does the contrary. As Tompkins (2012) has argued, there is the benefit of blending with the crowd using a small consumer-sized camera.

The newsgathering toolkit that I used in reporting also created a feeling of familiarity among my interviewees who felt less intimidated by a digital SLR than professional cameras used for broadcast. Rosemarie dela Cruz, one of the typhoon survivors featured in my documentary, told me that most typhoon survivors felt the fatigue of answering the same type of questions from media and other researchers (personal communication, September 3, 2014). Reporting solo and using lightweight equipment, however, were advantageous in soliciting fresh story angle, personal narratives and getting intimate with subjects.  As a matter of fact, my experience in television revealed that the mere presence of a documentary crew composed, for instance, of a director, a producer, a television host and a videographer, could overwhelm and intimidate the subject. It could also elicit the tendency of a person to act tensed and unnatural in front of a camera. On a contrary, I was able to create a comfortable atmosphere during the sit-down interviews and banters with my subjects. In fact, my interview with Jennifer, one of the survivors in a transitional housing site in Tacloban City, became more of a personal and free-flowing retelling of her story rather than a rigid recorded interview. While interviewing, she felt casual enough to clip her child’s fingernails as we chatted and filmed. These observations illustrate how backpack journalism redefines the nature of source-journalist relationship. However, I do not attribute the success of my fieldwork to consumer-size digital technologies alone. The fact that I am a Filipino and I can speak the local language also influenced the results of my field work.

Fourth, these new technologies allow the creation of multimedia content and offer a new narrative style. This is where backpack journalism meets multimedia reporting. The digital technologies of backpack journalists allow the faster and efficient creation of multimedia contents such as audio, video and still photo (during newsgathering stage) and interactive content and data visualisation. As Boczkowski (2004a) and Deuze (2004) argue, backpack journalists are the embodiment of convergence as they do not only utilise converged technologies, but they also work in an actual converged environment and news roles.

Lastly, backpack reporting is advantageous in humanising the story. The mantra of most journalists is that the most compelling narratives always involve human subjects. Being a solo journalist allows the collection of personal anecdotes which I gathered through casual conversations with typhoon survivors. There are also moments of spontaneity and authenticity that could only be captured by a backpack journalist who attracts less attention, solicits informal dialogues, uses casual equipment, and walks in the vicinity like an ordinary traveller curious about the surroundings. This makes backpack journalism an effective alternative to capture the community’s typical way of life and the subjects’ emotions.

Note: My full multimedia report is available online and a version is also published on The Wireless New Zealand. 

References (and further readings):

Boczkowski, P. J. (2004). The Processes of adopting multimedia and interactivity in three online newsrooms. Journal of Communication, 54:2, pp. 197-213. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2004.tb02624.x

Deuze, M. (2004). What is multimedia journalism? Journalism Studies, 5:2, pp. 139-152. doi:10.1080/1461670042000211131

Hemmingway, E. (2005). PDP, the news production network and the transformation of news. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 11:3, pp. 8-27. doi: 10.1177/135485650501100302

Kennedy, T. (2010). Whitepaper on Backpack Journalism. Washington, DC: American University School of Communication. Retrieved from http://www.american.edu/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=1713568

Quinn, S. (2005). Convergent journalism: The fundamentals of multimedia reporting. New York: P. Lang.

Tompkins, A. (2012). Aim for the heart: Write, shoot, report and produce for TV and Multimedia, Washington, DC: CQ Press.

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