Downside of solo reporting

iwit shoot
A television crew is usually composed of director, producer, videographers and TV host. Photo taken during our I-Witness shoot in Tacloban, Philippines [normanzafra]
In my previous blog, I have illuminated the advantages of working in the field alone, however, it is equally important to note that it should be seen as a refinement of an existing method only and not a replacement of established newsgathering practices ( see further notes from Kennedy, 2010). Backpack journalism still has its major pitfalls:

Technical issues and limitations

The availability of DSLR cameras compatible with external microphones is a major tool in my backpack reporting. However, not all camera brands allow the user to monitor the audio while it is being captured. For instance, while interviewing a local official in Tacloban, the lavalier microphone did not record audio due to poor batteries. Also, the specific camera brand that I used had no earphone plug which limited my ability to monitor the audio. These technical problems are less likely to happen with a news crew complete with video and audio accessories. I agree that the technical errors add another layer of work for a backpack journalist such as syncing the audio and the video interview during post-production. A back-up device (e.g. smartphone) is essential when conducting sit-down interviews and is also an efficient device to review the interviews during spare time such as in between travel.

Furthermore, compared to television crews mostly equipped with ample lighting equipment, my field work was largely dependent on natural light. Interviews were limited to outdoor locations. This meant an additional time for a journalist to survey the location and choose an appropriate interview venue that contains enough light. It is imprtant to mention, however, that DSLR cameras are able to capture good videos even in low light condition.

Focus on technology

Another downside of backpack reporting is the fact that during the field work, the reporter pays more attention to technology rather than content. This is why Avilés et al. (2004) caution news workers that reporting solo might leave less time for traditional journalistic practices such as cross checking of sources and finding contextual information. As a matter of fact, multitasking usually includes a number of technical jobs, often done simultaneously such as setting up the tripod, framing interview background, connecting cables and wires, audio-video recording, audio monitoring, and as well as stopping the recording momentarily to avoid overheating. Regardless of prior training in production, my experience demonstrated that multitasking adds to increased work pressure and leads to higher stress levels among journalists (see Wallace, 2013).  This is especially true in a more demanding disaster reporting wherein a reporter gets a one-shot chance in filming and interviews. I also needed to remind myself that I was dealing with sensitive and vulnerable subjects who lost their loved ones during the typhoon and needed to be treated gently. Apart from that, I was also working in a physically difficult terrain with less tourist infrastructures.

Independence versus collaboration

It is likely possible that a news organisation would deploy a backpack journalist to cover a story because it is a more efficient, cost-saving and flexible option among news managers (Avilés et al. 2004).  However, as Bock (2012) argues, this decision is done at the expense of newsroom collaboration and camaraderie. This means that backpack reporting, although saves time and money, requires longer working hours for journalists who create a complete multimedia package for a single story. My experience shows that although backpack journalism gives me the flexibility to work independently, the probability that a journalist would produce a more comprehensive report given a limited time is higher when working with a team.  In this case, I highly suggest assigning backpack journalists to feature stories so that they are not time-bound and could work with ample preparation. However, backpack journalists could also be assigned to cover breaking stories but working in tandem is ideal.

References:

Avilés, J. A. G., León, B., Sanders, K., & Harrison, J. (2004). Journalists at digital television newsrooms in Britain and Spain: Workflow and multi-skilling in a competitive environment. Journalism Studies, 5: 1, pp. 87-100. doi: 10.1080/1461670032000174765

Bock, M. A. (2012). Video journalism: Beyond the one-man band. New York: Peter Lang.

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

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