Kevin Sites, the original backpack journalist and author of “In the Hot Zone: 1 Man, 1 Year, 20 Wars,” spoke at Northeastern recently for the Karen Fischer Memorial Lecture. Karen Fischer was a journalism graduate student at Northeastern who was killed in 2006 in Afghanistan.
Kevin Sites is currently a Nieman fellow at Harvard doing research on sustainable web-based reporting, but his interest in using the Internet to get his message across started a long time ago. He has been covering wars for most of his career, reporting from almost every area of the world, and doing most of it himself. Being a “backpack journalist” (also called a SoJo, or solo journalist) means that you do everything yourself with what you have in your backpack: write, take photos, take video, edit sound, send it back to your editors, etc.
Sites was Yahoo! News’ first war correspondent and covered every major war in 2005-06. He often covered stories that weren’t reported in the mainstream media, focusing on what he calls the “collateral damage” of war.
“Combat is the smallest feature of any war,” he said. “It seduces us to covering was in an inaccurate way.” He said that he would rather “cover combat than a refugee camp” because it’s more exciting, but that it “doesn’t tell the whole story.”
In 2004, Sites was the focus of a controversy when working for NBC. He recorded the shooting of an injured but very much alive Iraqi insurgent by a U.S. Marine. NBC chose to air the video not in full but stopping as the Marine raised his gun but stopped it before he pulled the trigger. But the video was aired around the world on various other news outlets. Sites received both praise for showing the realities of the Iraq war and criticism for betraying the Marine unit he was embedded with and his country. Sites still feels that NBC made the wrong choice in choosing to censor the video in the U.S.
“We decided it was too costly to tell, when it was actually too costly not to tell,” he said. “When we decided to censor the video, we failed the American people.”
But this brings up the point of what is appropriate for the media to show. Most major newspapers and many major networks do not show dead bodies, people being killed, things like that. But the video that Sites shot was such an important turning point in the war, that maybe it should have been shown? I’ve been talking about this a lot in my ethics class lately, and I’m still not sure how I would deal with this kind of stuff if it was my decision.