(HN, April 16, 2011) - With foreign journalists under siege in many parts of the world, especially in ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, news agencies may need to think twice before deploying solo video journalists to conflict zones.
The issue of precautions for so-called all-platform journalists or multi-media journalists came up a a panel at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) this week in Las Vegas.
Also called 'backpack journalism' (BPJ), the trend of downsizing news teams is emerging in more TV markets, both big and small. Smaller cameras and ubiquitous connectivity - as well as budget slashing at news operations - are making media proprietors far more keen on the all-platform journalist model.
While the trend has worked fairly well in developed economies, such as the US and Canada, it is still too early to tell whether conditions allow for mass deployment of one-man videographer teams in danger zones overseas.
"When it comes to folks working by themselves you don't have someone watching your back," said Kevin Benz, a broadcast journalism veteran and award-winning news photographer. "When you are staring down that lens you are in complete tunnel vision and you don't have anyone watching for you."
Benz said that in conflict zones, larger crews may be more conspicuous but they allow for more protection.
"If you go off to dangerous places - whether it's in our cities or in other countries - by yourself there should be significant ethical consideration in our newsrooms that we make sure that we are keeping our journalists safe. If we know that we are sending them into something that is dangerous that we are sending them with support. That's being smart about being safe," said Benz.
On the other hand, there are benefits to a lean deployment to the field. The "intimidation factor" of interviewing subjects drops dramatically with smaller equipment, said Stacey Woelfel, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the news director for KOMU-TV, the University of Missouri-owned NBC affiliate for central Missouri.
"Smaller equipment does lend some stealth to the operation that we didn't have before," said Woelfel. "There is a trade-off there as our journalists will be able to work more secretly."
The issue of the safety and security of journalists has become more prominent in recent weeks as protests have rocked numerous countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Earlier this month a team from The New York Times was detained for several days by pro-Gadaffi elements in Libya. And in February, CBS News '60 Minutes' correspondent Lara Logan was assaulted in Cairo while covering the uprising in and around Tahrir Square.
CNN correspondents Anderson Cooper and Hala Gorani, and CBS News anchor Katie Couric were shown on-air being pushed around while covering the uprisings in Tahrir Square. All were accompanied by at least one crew member when they became the target of unruly crowds.
As news gathering drifts into a task done by many - including freelancers and citizen journalists - sufficient vetting of user-generated content streaming into newsrooms needs to be a major consideration. One panelist said that with more new sources sending stories and tweets into newsrooms from far-off locations, fact verification has to be part of the news work flow. "You want to be sure these people are legitimate."
Benz cited the Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) as an institution that has pioneered fact verification in often difficult circumstances. The service uses contributors in country where freedom of information is severly restricted. "They have developed very, very strong systems to verify information."
Benz said whether at home or abroad, leaner news operations means that "fewer people are working faster" to gather the news. "Give journalists time to verify the facts," he said.
- Reporting by Michael Bociurkiw in Las Vegas