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22.11.2013 17:15

You can make a difference - Bill Gentile

Salome Pkhaladze

ბილ ჯენტილი,Bill Gentile

All stock-in-trade in a single backpack and he is ready for adventures. Hand held digital camera, microphones, personal computer with editing programs (Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Express) are his part and parcel. Reporter, producer, cameraman, scriptwriter, narrator and editor- all in one journalist - 21st century’s multifunctional daredevil Backpack journalist.

Bill Gentile is the pioneer of backpack video journalism whose career spins three decades five continents and nearly every facet of journalism and mass communication. He begun his career in 1977 as a reporter for Mexico City News and Correspondent for United Press International based in Mexico City. He covered world’s hotspots such are the U.S. - backed Contra War in Nicaragua and the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s; the U.S. invasion of Panama; the 1994 invasion of Haiti, the ongoing conflict with Cuba, the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bill worked in the leading televisions of the United Sates. He won 2 Emmy awards and shared the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Human Rights Reporting.

Bill Gentile is the founder and director of American University's Backpack Journalism Project and he is one of the craft’s most noted practitioners. In September 2013 he conducted backpack video journalism workshop in Tbilisi Georgia, founded by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Workshop included participants not only from Georgia, but also from Armenia, Romania and Azerbaijan.

Below please find an interview with Bill Gentile.

- What are the advantages and drawbacks of this field of journalism?

First I think it is important to define the term: "Backpack video journalism is the craft of one properly trained practitioner using a hand-held digital video camera to tell character-driven stories in a more immediate, more intimate fashion than is achievable using a conventional, shoulder-held camera and a team that includes camera person, sound person, correspondent and producer. Backpack journalists do it all and, most importantly, we make the pictures, which are the driving force of visual communication. (There's a reason they call it tele-VISION.) In the field, a backpack journalist shoots, acquires sound, produces, reports, interviews. We write the script. In some cases we narrate the piece. Depending on circumstances, we either edit the piece on our own, or we sit side-by-side with an editor assigned to the task. Backpack journalism is not the 6 o’clock news reported by a single, multi-tasking journalist. It is a character-driven methodology with a specific, time-consuming approach and application that yields unique results and that does not work in all situations."

The methodology that we refer to as "backpack journalism" is made possible by the technology available to us today. We are, right now, at an extraordinary juncture in the history of mankind, technology and communication. Even more important than the Gutenberg press, the advances in digital cameras and the Internet provide us unprecedented opportunity. Ordinary citizens of the world now wield extraordinary power. We wield the power to communicate instantly, globally and in a language, the visual language, which supersedes both the written and the spoken word. This visual language knows no frontiers. It needs no translation. It is contingent on no corporate support. It is one of the most powerful tools of our time…And backpack journalism is the embodiment of this visual language.

One of the primary advantages is the fact that we, as individuals, have access to the global conversation that we call "journalism" without depending on any corporation or media outlet. We can communicate and participate as individuals. One of the drawbacks is the very fact that we can work alone -- without feedback from seasoned practitioners who might teach us about best practices and ethics that are so essential to our craft. Another drawback is the fact that working alone in an increasingly hostile world can be dangerous.

- What is the future of backpack journalism?

I think that, no matter what the new media landscape looks like after the current upheaval, backpack journalism will be an important part of it. Conventional media outlets understand that too much of the global conversation now is being conducted by backpack journalists. This cannot be ignored. And I think that everybody understands the economic advantages of having one or two backpack journalists doing the job of a four- or five-member television crew.

- You are the founder and director of American university's backpack journalism project and you also run your video journalism workshops worldwide. What do students study from those courses above?

I teach the visual storytelling language. One great disadvantage presented to us by the advances in technology is the fact that anyone can acquire that technology and attempt to practice the craft. But if you look at television and YouTube, you see that relatively few practitioners really understand how to "speak" this visual storytelling language. That's where I come in. I teach students how to speak the language properly. And effectively.

- You've conducted a week-long backpack video journalism workshop in Tbilisi, Georgia. What are your Georgian impressions?

My sense is that the young journalists whom I had the pleasure to know and to teach in Tbilisi, Georgia, understand the opportunities presented to them by this technology and by the craft of backpack video journalism. I think it is clear to them that they can join the movement of practitioners who want to participate in the global conversation that we call "journalism." I think they understand that they can make a difference. And that is what journalism is all about. Making a difference.

- What would you recommend young journalists?

My advice to young journalists is this: Never, ever, ever stop believing that you can make a difference. You can. You should. And if you work hard, you will.


Bill Gentile’s recent work includes three-part film series 2013 on religion and gangs in Guatemala (The Gangs, The Researcher, and The Pastor) available on on YouTube

Bill Gentile is the author of the Essential Video Journalism Field Manual available worldwide on







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