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Web Reporter Details New Methods of Conflict Coverage

October 29, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a marriage of new technology and old-fashioned reporting.

KEVIN SITES, Journalist: We’ve got to pan around here just a little bit so you can see it.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2005, Yahoo hired Kevin Sites to be its first news correspondent and help pioneer a new kind of solo journalism online. Sites spent a year visiting 20 of the world’s hot spots, from Gaza and Chechnya to the Congo and Myanmar, reporting back via video, still photos, and blog with daily posts.

He traveled alone with a backpack, carrying video and still cameras, a laptop computer, and satellite transmission equipment to shoot, write, edit and send reports. Prior to his Internet work, Sites worked in war zones for NBC and CNN.

Sites’ Yahoo Web site attracted nearly two million viewers per week. The work is now collected in a new book called “In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars.”

One-man-band journalism

JEFFREY BROWN: And Kevin Sites joins me now. Welcome.

KEVIN SITES: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: What can you do with this kind of one-man-solo, one-man-band journalism that you couldn't do as a network correspondent?

KEVIN SITES: Well, there's advantages and disadvantages, but for me the advantages were mobility and, you know, getting around a little bit quicker, getting around lighter, but also changing the dynamics of an interview situation less.

I think a lot of people, when you come onto a scene with a large camera and a lot of gear, perhaps a crew of four people, as I used to when I was working for the television networks, it's intimidating. It's either intimidating or it turns it into a completely different type of interview. The person becomes very public relations savvy.

And I didn't want either of those things to happen. I wanted to have an honest conversation with people. And for me, a way to do that was to come in with a smaller camera, not to have it between me and the subject, but really just to have it at my waist.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, show us how -- I mean, it's interesting because, on one hand, it's just you, but then you do have a lot of gadgets that you carry with you.

KEVIN SITES: I have a lot of things in my gear bag. I have about 60 pounds worth of gear and it's...

JEFFREY BROWN: Sixty pounds that you carry around with you, of all kinds of different...

KEVIN SITES: Chargers, peripherals, sometimes solar panels, all of the things that I need to keep me going, because I don't have bureaus anymore. You know, I work for Yahoo News, an Internet company. When I worked for NBC and CNN, I could get restocked wherever I went, but that's not the case with them.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the camera, though, is quite small.

KEVIN SITES: The camera is very small, in fact, smaller than a lot of digital still cameras. But for me doing the interview, I want to be able to hold it at my waist level, so I'm still having a conversation with the person.

Focusing on the individual

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you decided early on that you were going to have -- it sounds like a bottom-up approach. You wanted to let small individual stories tell larger stories. I mean that, in a way, is not new.

KEVIN SITES: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's a way that people often look at wars and conflicts, but what did you think you could bring to it?

KEVIN SITES: Well, I knew, for instance, that if I were going to do to go to 20 or 30 different war zones, I wouldn't be able to do a geopolitical approach to all of them or maybe any of them. And so for me to get to the truth of that conflict, it meant focusing on the individual, you know, doing that individual narrative.

And I also knew that, for the most part, people in America aren't paying attention to these conflicts, so how was I going to attract them into the tent? How was I going to get them there?

JEFFREY BROWN: So what's an example?

KEVIN SITES: An example was in the Congo. And I was actually doing a story on rape as a weapon of war. And I spoke to a number of rape victims. And they would tell me incredibly powerful, harrowing stories about what they experienced.

And I think, for a lot of people, the Congo is such a far-off, you know, deep, dark place, they probably, you know, couldn't point it out on the map if you asked them to. But if I could show them an experience in which they might be able to relate or at least understand or create some empathy for that person, I would get them involved and interested in that conflict.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how did the people in these places you were going to, how did they accept you, see you? How did they see the technology that you were bringing?

KEVIN SITES: It depends on where I was at. When I was traveling through Africa, I think I looked like an astronaut. I have a backpack on, and I have all of this gear, you know, swinging around my neck. And they certainly have seen journalists, and they've seen NGO aide workers there helping them out. But I think, for the most part, I looked very strange and very different.

You would hear the term in the Sudan "khawaja," you know, "rich white guy." And, of course, you know, I could be the poorest man in America and still be a rich white guy in south Sudan.

And I think that it was important for me to settle down when I first got into a location, talk to people first, take notes, not just come in shooting and trying to capture a scene before I even understood it myself, but actually having a conversation with people.

And once that happened, they got a little bit more comfortable with me. They'd realized that I was there to tell their stories. And in some ways, it could become a sense of power for them.

Subject still makes the difference

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did you find in terms of the audience that was taking this in? Were there surprises in terms of what kinds of stories they were interested in? Because a lot of this is also about feedback from your audience, as well, right?

KEVIN SITES: Well, what was interesting is that I had my camera stolen in Afghanistan. And probably the most important story or the story that we got the most reactions to was about a child bride in Afghanistan named Gulsoma.

And we had somewhere between 9 and 11 million responses to that, yet it was such a traditional story in that it was only captured with digital still photos and text. There was no video involved. So the multimedia approach wasn't there, and it still became the most-read story that we had done, just because the traditional narrative was so strong there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? So what lesson do you take from that?

KEVIN SITES: That the subject matters. The content still has to be there. It doesn't matter how many gadgets you have. It doesn't matter, you know, how mobile you are. If you're not getting a true story, if you're not capturing the essence of a person's existence, you're not going to have people come to the site.

The other thing that I learned, I think, that was really important and also a little unsettling is that the delivery system that I was using to tell my stories was also the same system that people could use to respond to me. So they would read a story and either be moved by it or very angry and respond immediately. They didn't have to pick up the telephone. There was no intermediary. They could respond directly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were there limitations you found in just being one person out there in the world, when you're trying to cover various sides of a story?

KEVIN SITES: Being one person, you can only be in one place at a time. And that was a terrific problem during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict last summer.

Challenges of reporting in Lebanon

JEFFREY BROWN: In Lebanon.

KEVIN SITES: Exactly. I got to Lebanon, and I spent about two weeks covering the war, really at its peak time period, showing a lot of the carnage that was happening from Israeli missile strikes and so on. And there were a lot of angry responses: Why aren't you showing the Israeli side?

Where every other network had someone in both places, you know, we did not. I was Yahoo's only correspondent. And so it took me two weeks before I got out of there and went to the Israeli side and started covering it from there, as well.

So it was giving equal time to both sides, but I had to do it two weeks apart. There may have been more carnage on one side than the other, but the fear that occurs in a place like that, while either Katyusha rockets are falling into Israel or missile strikes, JDAMs, are, you know, plowing into Tyre, both sides experience that. They experienced that fear of war.

It also gave me a chance to be a little bit more circumspect about the reporting. I think there was almost an equivocation that went on with the network reporting. We had two minutes in Lebanon. Now we have to give two minutes in Israel. And for me, it was whatever was happening, whatever was going on with that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you look in the future, do you see more of this kind of this approach to journalism?

KEVIN SITES: I think we're seeing it already. ABC News just said that they're going to staff seven of their international bureaus with one-man bands or, in a lot of cases, one-woman bands. I think two or three of the reporters are actually females.

And I think that's good, only in the sense that they're covering places maybe they didn't have a bureau at all before. So increasing the coverage is great.

Some people will adopt this approach for economic reasons. I think others will use it just in the sense as I adopted it, that it provides mobility, it provides access, and a little bit different kind of a storytelling.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Kevin Sites, thanks very much.

KEVIN SITES: Thank you, Jeff.