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Bulgarian media get backpack journalism tips from JMSC Associate Professor

Former backpack war correspondent and JMSC Associate Professor of Practice Kevin Sites recently conducted five days of training for Bulgarian journalists on the basics of digital mobile journalism—the concept of self-reliant individuals shooting, writing and producing multimedia news reports alone and with only what they can carry in their packs.

‘The main point I tried to share with my Bulgarian colleagues was that the most important tool they carry is the one riding on their shoulders … their brains,’ Sites said.

‘The lighter, more compact cameras and other digital gear allows better mobility, but the greatest benefit of backpack journalism is the smaller footprint we have as reporters. Our source isn’t talking to a camera or a microphone, but to a human being and that means a better rapport and information, whether you’re working in Bulgaria or Buenos Aires.’

Sites travelled to three different Bulgarian cities, the capital Sofia, a southern central city called Stara Zagora and the Black Sea port city of Varna, in mid-October, working with dozens of journalists in training sessions that lasted 6‒8 hours.

Kevin Sites speaking at the Red House in Sofia

Kevin Sites speaking at the Red House in Sofia

He also spoke on media ethics in a well-attended talk for the general public at the Sofia Red House, a multifunctional cultural and socio-political centre in the capital. His speech was titled ‘When Do You Put the Camera Down?’

While many in the capital of Sofia speak or understand some English, the programme used two interpreters at each event to provide simultaneous translations.

‘It was almost like our language barriers were erased,’ said Sites. ‘One interpreter would tell the audience what I was saying and the other interpreter would translate their reactions to me through audio headsets. The only things lost in translation were my bad jokes … as usual.’

The trip was sponsored through an educational grant by the US State Department and US Ambassador to Bulgaria, Eric Ruben, hosted a dinner for Sites at his residence which was attended by top Bulgarian journalists.

Spokesperson of the US Embassy in Bulgaria, Jean Olsen, said both reporters and the public were eager to engage with Sites at the different events.

‘Bulgarian journalists, particularly outside the capital, consistently identify training as one of the most significant shortcomings of journalism. In four days of intensive training on both technique and theory, Kevin demonstrated his expertise in a way that communicated both the importance of professionalism and humanity,’ said Olsen.

Sites' trip was covered on social media by the US Embassy in Sofia

Sites’ trip was covered on social media by the US Embassy in Sofia

‘It was that humanity that captivated the audience at a public lecture Kevin offered in Sofia … and led to a provocative exchange of opinions and observations among audience members, who included both journalists and others.’

Bulgaria is ranked in most economic studies as one of the poorest countries Europe with per capita GDP just over US$14,000 annually, but Sites says there’s been progress since the country joined the European Union in 2007.

‘I came through Sofia in 1999 on my way to cover the war in Kosovo. It was the post-communist period and things were pretty bleak. But even then I was drawn to the place, the rich history and unique architecture. It calmed me before heading into what was one of my first war assignments. It will always be special to me for that reason.’

This is the second such trip Sites has done through US State Department educational grants sponsorship. The other was in mainland China last Spring, when he travelled to Beijing and Guangzhou to give a series of speeches to the general public on the challenges of reporting from conflict zones.

Sites is currently on sabbatical from the JMSC working on a book tentatively titled, Imperfect Killers, based in part on his Common Core course, ‘Killing Stories: The Search for Truth in the Narratives of War’. He will return to HKU for the Spring 2017 semester.

Read more about Sites’ trip to Bulgaria from the US Embassy in Sofia here, and visit his website here.