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American University Unveils Backpack Journalism Workshop

By Benét J. Wilson, DJTF co-chair, Online Managing Editor-Business Aviation, Aviation Week Group

Bill Gentile

Bill Gentile is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker teaching the backpack journalism program at American University (my alma mater) in Washington, D.C. His career spans three decades, five continents and nearly every facet of journalism and mass communication, most especially visual communication, or visual storytelling. He is considered a pioneer of “backpack journalism.”

His recent works include “Nurses Needed,” about the nursing shortage across the United States, and “Afghanistan: The Forgotten War,” about America’s deepening involvement in that Central Asian country. Broadcast in 2008 by NOW on PBS, the stories were named NOW’s Number 1 and Number 3, respectively, most popular of the year. For the Afghanistan piece, Gentile was nominated for a national Emmy Award.

“I spent a lot of time crossing the arc in journalism.  I started as reporter and photographer for newspaper in Mexico City,” said Gentile. “I also worked for UPI in Central America and was a Newsweek contract photo in Central America.”

Unlike many journalists, Gentile said he saw the handwriting on the wall back in the 1990s that photography was starting to contract.  “I worked for first company in the U.S. to use small cameras to do TV pieces, and I’ve been doing it ever since for companies including National Geographic and TLC,” he said.

The field is moving away from print to video, both on television and the Internet, said Gentile.  “When I got to AU, I had already been doing video journalism, knowing that the Internet is where many people are getting their news,” he said.  “My work was a natural fit for AU’s School of Communication, and the backpack journalism course is in tune with that. I’m not just reading the tea leaves here, but am being engaged and helping AU lead the pack.”

Gentile began his teaching career in 2000 at Kent State University.  “They needed someone to teach multimedia journalism, someone who knew about photography, print and video journalism, and I had worked in all these areas,” he said.  “I spent three years there, but I wanted to look for more opportunity in a compelling location, so Washington, D.C., and AU were a perfect fit.”

His first course, in the fall of 2003, was Foreign Correspondent, recalled Gentile.  “It was highly popular and I still teach it every semester,” he said.

Gentile actually started the backpack journalism program outside AU in a partnership with NOW on PBS. “Sadly, the program has ceased because of budget cuts, so I created the course for AU,” he said.  “This endeavor helps prepare students to practice their craft in the real world.”

There’s a lot of video generated out there, and unfortunately, a significant proportion of it is not very good, said Gentile.  “The problem is that practitioners are not trained to speak the visual language.  It’s critical that students understand and can speak visual language,” he stated.  “Most stuff on the Internet doesn’t reflect this knowledge, so the objective is to construct new courses for a certificate program that will make AU the place in the country to learn this craft.”

The workshops are held at AU and in conjunction with other partners, said Gentile. “In March, we held a workshop with NBC News in D.C. and AU, and I’m in the process of building certificate program,” he said.  We had 2 NBC employees who participated.

Gentile pointed me to a 5:37-minute video – Stitching in Skin — done in the workshop by NBC employee Amna Nawaz, who had previously never done video in her life.  “It’s a great example of what can be achieved in only four days,” he noted.

Why should you consider taking this course?  “One, no matter what the media landscape looks like after the current upheaval, backpack journalism will be a major part of that landscape,” Gentile observed.  “If you intend to practice this methodology, you need to learn from someone who knows how to do it.  You need to make it a top priority to stay active in the field and stay on top of the technology.”

Click here for a list of Gentile’s upcoming workshops.

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Home of the National Association of Black Journalists's (NABJ's) Digital Journalism Task Force

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