Kevin Sites at GMU

Posted on March 1, 2013 by maburdei.
Categories: Uncategorized.

Kevin Sites, the renown backpack journalist best known for his coverage of global wars in his Yahoo! blog Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone,  came to Mason on February 12 to speak to journalism students.

Sites presented several points he felt were important to mention to young journalists.

Check out some of the highlights below:


Photo obtained from courtesy of Kevin Sites.

Shrink the Footprint: Backpack journalism is all about traveling light to get the best story. With backpack journalism, all the equipment needed for a traditional news crew is shrunk and there is more of a direct deposit from capturing the news to posting the news.

Sites used to be a field producer for ABC, NBC, and CNN. But he noticed that when he was talking to people with a small recorder or just by means of an in-person interview, he got a more genuine response from them. Talking to people with large cameras, boom mics, and an entire field producing crew is intimidating, and Sites found that people would build themselves, or their stories, up in front of the them. Their quotes would change, their posture would change, their whole personality would change.

“Shrinking the footprint” makes the standard interview more of a conversation and gets to the heart of who people are and what they’re dealing with.

Report in 3 Dimensions: People live in 3 dimensions, so it’s incomplete to tell their narrative in text alone. Sites emphasized the importance of knowing when to shoot video, take photos, audio record, and use text. They all have a different effect. All can be used to illustrate a larger truth, but you have to know when to use what. You can’t do everything, but leverage those mediums to tell a complete story, Sites said.

Exploit the Tension: Every story needs tension or conflict, otherwise it’s not a story. That doesn’t mean you can’t tell happy stories, Sites said. The tension, might be the war within yourself. As a journalist, you can affect peoples’ lives forever. Do you choose to tell a story or not? Do you choose to continue filming for the sake of the story or drop the camera to physically assist someone in need? Do you tell a story even if it could get you or a person in authority in jeopardy?

Storytelling is Healing: After covering roughly 20 wars and dealing day by day with this reporter-tension, Sites developed symptoms of PTSD. Soldiers often get this–it’s the result of guilt associated with killing or surviving.

How to treat it?


Sites discovered that storytelling was a way to mitigate the symptoms of PTSD. Sharing stories is therapeutic. Storytelling is part of the healing process. It helped him with his PTSD, but for the soliders…

The Things They Cannot Say

” They’re not using it so much. That’s the problem. It’s the things they cannot say. You get to this position where we come back and we don’t think society is going to understand and so they’re really not talking about their experiences. We as a society have to engage them to get them to tell the stories. And we have to ask them the proper questions. And the problem is we come back and we ask them these deeply disrespectful questions–‘Hey, did you kill anyone?‘– Now, wanting to understand what that’s like, if it actually happened, is not the bad thing. It is a sense of curiosity that we have in society. We should know about it, but we have to ask in the proper way. And it means showing respect to the soldier or marine by letting them control the dialogue to some extent.

You tell them, ‘Listen. I want to understand what you experienced over there. I want to understand what you went through and I’ll be here as long as it takes for you to tell me that. And tell me when you’re ready, but I really want to know because I care about you.’

And that allows them to be back in control, it shows respect for their complex experiences, which can be funny. I mean, they might be ashamed because some of them are funny and they don’t want to seem politically incorrect if they tell you something was really cool or  ‘I felt really powerful.’ They’re worried how people are going to react to that and they’re worried also that they did something that they’re not proud of. It’s a difficult situation when you come back from a war zone and all everybody wants to do is pat you on the back and say ‘thanks for the great service.’ What if you did something that you’re not happy with? …It would probably compound the injury to some extent.

Getting them to talk about these things, enlarging the dialogue, is our role in society. That’s something we have to do very proactively and we have to engage them in that way…

Everybody’s experiences are different and that’s kind of what we have to appreciate–is the idea that war experiences are complex and unique and there isn’t a one size fits all in dealing with those issues.”

For more on Kevin Sites, check out his website or his newest book, “The Things They Cannot Say.”

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