Backpack Journalist: Kevin Sites In Kathmandu

Kevin Sites in Kailali shooting a Maoist guerilla girl
American war correspondent Kevin Sites points his camera toward an armed Maoist guerilla girl in Kailali, far west Nepal, this week. Pic by Wagle

By Dinesh Wagle
Saturday Blog

A soldier heading for the war zone would carry a loaded rifle along with a bandolier of bullets. What about a journalist who is going to cover that war? Pen and a notebook. A still camera if he is a photo journalist. Video camera for a TV reporter. If that journalist is Kevin Sites then he would carry a pen and a notebook in a small pouch, a still camera in one hand, a digital video camera in another and a backpack containing a powerful laptop computer on one side, Thuraya Satellite phone on the other, a backup digital video camera in between, a satellite modem in a pocket to transfer photos and videos to California from anywhere in the world. Plus, a palmtop mobile phone on a shirt pocket. Welcome to the new world of reporting where a correspondent leads a One Man Band to do audio, visual, text and photo journalism at the same time using high-tech gadgets. Kevin Sites is a renowned American reporter of contemporary world war journalism and is currently observing the effects of war on the streets of Kathmandu.

After observing a rally of Maoist victims that went to Singhadurbar on Friday (last week), this American journalist is now enjoying Dal, bhat and tarkari in a restaurant in Thamel. Sites is in a mission that will take him to 20 conflict-affected countries of the world in a year. That is why he was in Haiti before landing in Kathmandu on Wednesday. Before that he was in Columbia and Afghanistan. (Meanwhile, in the last four weeks, the winner of this year’s Daniel Pearl Award has also been to New York to deliver speeches, to Arizona to see his sick mother and to Los Angeles to spend some time with his girlfriend.) He has been to 13 countries since he started the mission seven months ago and more than 20 million people have been reading what he has been filing from the hot zones in a week.

The event was world news when Yahoo, one of the world’s largest Internet portals, hired Kevin as a first correspondent for their popular agency based news operation (Kevin Sites in Hot Zone). “His carefully constructed travel ensemble includes a rolling suitcase filled with lightweight clothing treated with insect repellent, a sleeping bag and a custom backpack that contains an array of gadgets that would put James Bond to shame,” wrote the New York Times reporting the event.

But Kevin won’t spy like Bond while reporting. “We journalists are storytellers,” he said while we were walking in Putali Sadak as smells of fried meat was coming out of the hotels on the street. “And we are living in a digital age. Stories aren’t just flat. They are dynamic. The collaboration of pictures, video and words makes it easy to tell them more credibly.”

Traditional media (newspapers, radio and TV) can’t allow reporters to use all three mediums at the same time to tell stories. The rise and popularity of Internet has made that possible. That is why Kevin said Yahoo! rejecting lucrative job offers from all three big networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) of the United States. “Print lacks smell,” he says. “There is no context in TV and photos. That is why I use notebook to collect details, a still camera to take pictures of faces that are important part of story telling and video to grab movements.” He thinks that details, faces and movements are equally important in digital story telling.

The concept of Solo Journalist (SoJo) came as TV reporters wanted to work on their own by operating cameras as they move. But many (especially traditional) journalists in the US frown upon the SoJo concept saying that it would be difficult to concentrate for a reporter if he operates camera and takes note at the same time. “I faced some difficulties in the beginning,” Kevin said. “But now I am COMFORTABLE with this type of working style. You learn as you do it.”

How would Kevin compare his SoJo experience with his days in mainstream outlets like CNN and NBC? “AN NBC crew would welcome me in Kathmandu as I land at the airport,” he said. “Everything would be set up. But now I have to do that all thing on my own.” Kevin thinks that back pack journalism has both challenges and opportunities. “We don’t get a lot of time to tell our stories at the networks,” he says. “But here you tell the stories the way you like it and help audience understand the issues more effectively.”

Kevin Sites in Kathmandu
Kevin Sites in Kathmandu.

This tall American with long hair and close-trimmed has maintained his body even as he extensively travels and works at the same time. When I told him that his appearance and muscles inspired a Nepali journalist to compare him with Hollywood actor Sylvester Stallion (Rambo), Kevin responded with a smile. Then he disclosed the mystery of long hair. “I spend most of my time in war zones,” the veteran war correspondent said. “When I had short hair, people didn’t cooperate with me thinking that I was a soldier or a spy. Long hair helps people relax around you.”

The sensational and world-renown Fallujah video that he shot of an American marine killing an unarmed Iraqi in 2003 has become Kevin’s identity. After that video was broadcast in NBC and other international television stations, he was branded both a traitor and a heroic journalist at the same time.

The journalist who has been filing as many reports as possible in limited time from different countries weeks after weeks will take a long vacation after finishing the mission. Then he will write a book and start the Hot Zone America series. He said that he might also set up a new web site or help Yahoo continue Hot Zone using foreign correspondents. Then that will be an opportunity for other reporters to put Bond to shame.

UWB: This article is translated from Nepali which was originally published in May 13 issue of Kantipur daily. Here is the original story

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