Frontline assignment was my debut for multiskilling

It’s a mission for RoboHack: Blogging, filming, photographing and podcasting – possibly all at the same time. And did someone mention reporting?

Last November, I plunged in at the digital deep-end during three weeks embedded with the US army in Iraq. After filing copy for The Observer in the traditional way, I found the ‘on’switch on a video camera and started to learn on the job, filming soldiers as they patrolled the rubble-strewn streets of Baghdad.

Shooting video was an exciting new journalistic challenge with its own grammar and ground rules. I accumulated 16 hours of sometimes shaky footage, which was eventually edited into three films of three minutes each. But I wondered if I’d got too carried away when a soldier asked me: ‘Hey, cameraman, do you write as well?’I think there were times when filming made me too passive journalistically. I became content to observe and record, preoccupied with camera angles and sound levels, when perhaps I should have been getting stuck in with searching questions.

On any given day, aim for a good article or aim for a good film; it’s hard to do both at the same time. Still, an assignment like Baghdad reminds you why you’re a journalist.

Thoughts and observations rise within you and demand to be shared. Often they used to remain frustratingly buried in your notebook, but the internet changes all that. Guardian Unlimited gave me the opportunity to write an ’embed diary’which, informal and opinionated, but drawing on facts and quotations, was somewhere between a blog and reportage. It allowed me to write in the first person about the apprehension of venturing into central Baghdad for the first time, something which would otherwise have been the stuff of pub anecdotes.

But I felt I was sailing into uncharted and choppy waters one night when a US army colonel took me to task over a diary entry in which I described my discomfort at the sight of three young suspects being blindfolded and handcuffed by his men. ‘I know what this is,’he fumed. ‘It’s a complete hatchet job!’We managed to clear the air, but the incident raised awkward questions about the distinction between blogs and news, and about the embed process in an age when soldiers can go online and immediately see your work.

Multimedia journalism is hard work and time consuming, and of course there is a danger that process can deflect from story-getting. On the other hand, the new tools at journalists’ disposal bring incredible opportunities.

The correspondent on the ground needs two things. First, autonomy: Only they can make the call on whether a lunchtime is best spent producing an online slideshow, meeting a contact – or eating. Second, time: What would have been a three-day assignment might now need to be a five-day assignment if the digital work is to be done properly without compromising the copy.

In Baghdad, I was lucky enough to have both.

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