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Blood on the Lens

Take cover from online interactive war reporting.

Claude Adams 3 Jan

Claude Adams is a freelance writer and video journalist. This article is drawn from his master's thesis in applied communication at Royal Roads University.

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'Immersive journalist' Kevin Sites

A segment on Kevin Sites's Hot Zone website begins with a man in Afghan dress peering through binoculars at a desert horizon. We hear a sharp "pop." Then a whooshing sound, followed by an explosion. The camera seems to fall to its side. A voice says: "That was close!" Another voice says: "I'm hit. Yeah."

The victim is a producer for National Geographic magazine, Gary Scurka, who is clutching his lower right leg. He is wounded -- shrapnel from a shell fired by a Taliban tank. "Shoot this, I'm bleeding," he tells cameraman Sites, who takes a few seconds of video, then barks: "We got it. Now let's move to the other side of the tank, the other side! They've zeroed in on this position."

Then Sites turns the camera back on the wounded Scurka. "We'll wrap you up first. Give me the fuckin' scarf...(This is for) posterity." Then from off-camera, he asks Scurka: "You've just been hit by a tank shell. How do you feel?" Scurka calmly allows himself to be interviewed while the blood flows from his leg. After a few moments, they call in a Medivac helicopter and Scurka is flown to safety.

Immersive journalism

Most traditional newsgathering is extractive -- the journalist dips into the stew of human events and extracts a narrative that is "objective," backgrounded, sourced and usually impersonal. But Sites and the Hot Zone are examples of "immersive journalism," where the storyteller is a leading character in his own narrative. Thus, a relatively minor incident on a distant battlefield involving two Americans is deemed worthy of world attention. There's blood on the lens, dramatic actuality, a shaky camera, a blurred desert landscape and, for added drama, we hear the heavy nervous breathing of the correspondent who will, in an hour or so, transmit these images, by satellite phone, to an office in California.

It's all about reflexivity, the narrator experiencing himself, embedded in the story. All the equipment he needs -- his digital cameras, his Thuraya/Hughes 7101 satellite phone, a Hughes R-BGAN satellite modem, and an Apple 12-inch PowerBook -- is safely tucked into a backpack that weighs less that 50 pounds. Technicians in the California office will record the video, re-edit it if necessary, tweak the sound levels and feed the videotape immediately onto the Hot Zone website where it will be available, in theory, to a potential audience of 400 million Yahoo! subscribers around the world, at their computer terminals. They will have a chance to share in a few moments of Kevin Sites's peripatetic life as a conflict correspondent.

But what do the pictures mean? What information do they transmit? How do they advance our knowledge about the war, about Afghanistan and its people, other than the obvious fact that war is dangerous for everybody, including reporters?

The answer is: not much.

We learn as much about Sites and his inner dynamics as the war itself. The reaction among academics and journalists has been mixed. Orville Schell, dean of journalism at the University of California in Berkeley, foresees a flood of "younger people roaming the world feeding news stories to Yahoo." But Ross Howard, a journalism instructor in Vancouver who has written on media and democracy, dismisses it as "interactive entertainment" that skims the surfaces of conflicts without any serious journalistic engagement.

Short on 'sense-making'

Journalism, says scholar James Carey, is "a form of storytelling aimed at imposing coherence on an otherwise chaotic form of events." It's called sense-making, the ability to take disparate sounds, images and pieces of data, and shape them into coherent narratives than enlighten an audience. The key word here is "enlighten." The function of news is, in its simplest terms, to tell us something we don't know, or to remind us of something we need to be reminded of. Kevin Sites, a 42-year-old American videographer not given to modesty, says he is "at the nexus of a new wave of journalism" -- a wave that he and his bosses hope will re-awaken an interest in world news among the 18-to-34 age demographic.

In fact, Sites makes all the familiar mistakes of traditional newsgathering. He stereotypes, oversimplifies, melodramatizes, condescends and even, at times, engages in what journalism professors would call "the language of colonial discourse." After a brief visit to the South Sudan village of Malual Kan, for example, Sites films women building the roof of a hut while the men sit in the shade playing dominoes. In his script, Sites concludes that Sudanese women lead "a life of servitude." He visits an outpost of the "ragtag" rebel army, the South Sudan Liberation Army, where men in civilian dress and plastic sandals stage a parade for his cameras, and concludes, "What they lack in style they make up in resolve."

South Sudan is today at peace, but Sites makes the remarkable observation that "the army won't hesitate to fight anew if peace in South Sudan fails." (In fact, based on my own travels in South Sudan, the SPLA rebels would often go months without engaging the enemy, and there was frequent internecine conflict.) Meanwhile, Sites reports that aid workers for the International Red Cross are content to "sleep in grass huts and take cold showers. They wouldn't have it any other way." (This is patently untrue.)

In Sites's Sudan, then, all women are oppressed, all soldiers heroic, and all aid workers self-sacrificing. He draws these conclusions without a single interview of substance, after what one presumes is a brief visit to the village accompanied by headmen.

Mud pies and cannibals

During a visit to Haiti last spring, Sites visited a slum and illuminated the desperate poverty by filming a woman baking "mud pies" -- food made from dirt after the stones and twigs are removed. It's a remarkable microcosmic image of life in the hemisphere's poorest country. Life in Haiti is so bizarrely wretched, he tells us, that people "crave dirt." But the real story is a little more complex: the earth is actually mixed with spices and bouillon cubes, and the dirt provides some of the minerals so sorely needed by pregnant women. It's the only way they can get it. Sites doesn't tell us this. Nor does he bother to interview (or film) anyone actually consuming the mud pies, or a nutritionist who could explain the phenomenon. Instead, we are left with the paternalistic one-dimensional tabloid image of a people "craving dirt."

Some would call this kind of journalism "colonial discourse" -- featured by an absence of the details of identification when the reporter is confronted by individuals whose language and culture he or she does not understand. In his book Rhetoric of Empire, David Spurr argues that what we need is a journalism "inspired by the celebration of plurality, the conscious affirmation of the differences seen from my window." Yet, when Sites interviews the widow of a man killed by members of the Lord's Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, we don't even see the widow's face, and only hear her allegations that her husband was then cannibalized. And Sites says in his narration: "This is the most horrible story I've ever heard."

Had this woman lived in the West, she would have been individualized with information about her family, personal details, corroborative testimony from witnesses and details about how the community was dealing with the outrage. None of that appeared in Sites's report -- the woman was a faceless, one-dimensional victim, presented as representative of her gender, her culture and her society. She is part of a larger, bleak narrative: we learn nothing about her individual "human experience."

Obviously, Sites is limited in the scope of his journalism. As Echo Fields notes in his study of content analysis in TV news, a reporter in the field often does not have access to the people who actually generated a particular news event; as a result "the fruit of one's analysis is not the 'truth' of events, only a plausible description of a narrative based upon them."

What's new?

Kevin Sites claims to be at the "nexus" of a new type of journalism. However, the processes of newsgathering and storytelling that he employs are, for the most part, conventional. In his classic 1973 study News from Nowhere: Television and the News, Edward Jay Epstein said that broadcast news narratives are, by necessity, structured to resemble works of fiction that are simple, direct and with "universal appeal." Images selected for broadcast will have "instant meaning" and they will "tell a story to everyone watching the program."

Thus, a naked child with a distended belly will represent poverty, and a woman carrying a bucket of water in the hot sun will be representative of all African women. As a consequence, nuance and subtlety (and precision) are sacrificed in the cause of producing a compelling narrative. It is the formula that NBC correspondents followed in 1973, and it is the formula that Kevin Sites follows today.

For example, one unnarrated story on the Hot Zone site shows a young Palestinian woman who, Sites tells us, was hit by a tear gas grenade during Israeli-Palestinian fighting when she was seven years old. The incident left her completely blind, and today "her imagination has blossomed" to the point where she writes evocative poetry. "Give me my childhood," she recites. "Don't shoot me in the head. I am a child in the age of flowers." The video item has strong emotional (and propagandist) value precisely because we get no contextual information about the incident that left her blind -- the circumstances of the fighting, where it happened, why she was there, etc. Instead, we get the iconic image of a young Arab woman, smiling despite her blindness -- meaning: courage under adversity -- and reading a message that suggests Israeli disregard for innocent children, without exploring that subject matter.

See me, feel me...

While Sites has produced some sensational video and told some compelling human-interest stories, he has added little of substance to our understanding of the nature of conflict, its roots, the motivations of combatants, or any original ideas for conflict resolution. Sites simply did not have the resources (or indeed, the mandate) to explore the stories behind the stories.

In Sites's defence, some communication theorists believe that this kind of journalism has great potential value. Michael Dertouzos argues that "any new channel of communication among the people and organizations of this world is likely to contribute to increased understanding, hence greater peace."

But others argue, more convincingly, I believe, that in a digital universe, more information is by no means a guarantee of greater clarity and understanding. More bits and bytes do not equal insight, and human-interest stories, of the kind produced in Kevin Sites's odyssey, do not equal human understanding.  [Tyee]

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