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Interview with Shirley Ying Han, Multimedia Journalist in Politics and Foreign policy

Shirley Ying Han is a multimedia journalist in politics and global affairs and an associate producer at CNN

Shirley Ying Han is a multimedia journalist based in New York. She currently works as an associate producer for CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, a weekly show that covers U.S. domestic politics and international affairs through analysis and debate. One of her documentary films on the water crisis in the North China Plain received the Award of Excellence at the 2014 Canada International Film Festival. Her articles have appeared in outlets such as The Delacorte Review, CNN, The Korea Herald, and Mehr News. She earned a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with a concentration in politics and global affairs. She is also an alumna of the International Fellows Program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, specializing in U.S. foreign policy. Before New York, she lived and worked in Beijing, Seoul, Tehran, Hong Kong, and Paris.

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Can you tell us about your beginnings? How and when did you understand you wanted to be a documentary filmmaker and visual storytelling?

After obtaining a B.A. in Economics, I started my career as a financial news writer but soon specialized in current affairs in a heartfelt need for human stories. I experimented with different media formats such as cable news and newspaper. Although cable news was seen as an instant source of information back then, I wasn’t satisfied with the way of its storytelling mainly focuses on the ongoing development of an event without examining much of its past. Daily newspapers were constrained by space and deadlines and couldn’t print all the context we need. I was looking for a medium that would solve my puzzle. It wasn’t until 2009 when I joined The Guardian Beijing bureau that I realized documentary videos could be the answer. The timing corresponded to the democratization of filmmaking as Canon began to offer full-HD video-capturing capacity with its 5D Mark II. The print media was going through a digital revolution and embracing ideas to boost their online presence. I teamed up with Guardian’s Beijing correspondent Jonathan Watts to report on China’s environmental challenges. I pitched stories ideas and helped shoot and edited videos. Together we produced several website video features that were followed by other media outlets. I learned so much from Jonathan and the rest of the Guardian team, and I began to incubate my independent documentary projects. I was following the blog of photojournalist Dan Chung who pioneered the DSLR use in filmmaking. There was also this self-training website No Film School, founded by Ryan Koo, offering collective knowledge to filmmakers of every budget.

Shirley Ying Han

I see documentary videos as a very comprehensive storytelling tool and a revealing portrait of history. It employs texts, moving images, and audio elements to incorporate the team’s research into a compelling narrative. All these elements activate our imagination simultaneously in the shortest time possible and help us grasp the depth and nuances of complex political and social issues. Having said that, in recent years, I’m shifting my focus back to writing, the most fundamental element of all forms of journalism. I would like to do more visual writing in the future.

Shirley Ying Han has mainly been focusing on public policy research and analysis and nonfiction writing

Who have been your biggest mentors and what is the best advice they have ever given you?

My first and most important mentor was really my mom, a self-made Chinese woman. She was brought up by her paternal grandmother in a suburb of Tianjin because her mother passed away after giving birth to her, and her father worked far away from home. She was great at school but the decade-long Cultural Revolution began in 1966. As part of an anti-bourgeois movement, urban youth would be sent to work on remote rural farms if they wished to continue high school. All Chinese universities had their doors closed without knowing when they would accept applicants again. So after completing her secondary education, my mom was assigned by the government to wait tables in a publicly owned restaurant seven days a week. Feeling unfulfilled, she took evening courses and exams and eventually became a certified accountant. She encourages everyone not to believe in fate, but to work hard and strive for a better self. She never hesitates to help my dad’s siblings financially, even with her very moderate salaries. I’ve always admired her strength, energy, and perseverance despite all those unfavorable social and personal circumstances. Throughout my career, my colleagues and project collaborators have all been mentors to me in their way. My first boss, CNN’s Jaime Florcruz, trained me on how to be a good reporter. Guardian’s Jonathan Watts opened my eyes to environmental journalism and DSLR filmmaking. David Rathbun of Pasteur Institute told me to dream big and introduced me to the importance of global public health cooperation. Veteran journalist and book author Judith Matloff mentored me on nonfiction narrative writing, advising me to focus on the actions and note down everything that I see and hear. Most importantly, Professor Nicholas Lemann at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, also a staff writer at The New Yorker, taught me a Tolstoy way of thinking when reporting on complex stories. An event is often controlled by the actions of the multitudes with no single causation. Don’t ever mistake analytical reasoning with narrative logic.

Shirley Ying Han

What challenges did you face in becoming a multimedia journalist?

Multimedia journalists work across many dimensions. Technological change means constant learning. I had to pick up a lot of new skills. For instance, through independent documentary projects and freelance, I was able to develop my own story ideas and work on subjects that require in-depth research. I learned from budgeting to distribution, deep research to graphics design, camera controls to creative editing, long-form scriptwriting to voice-over, etc. Data visualization wasn’t my strongest assets three years ago, so I took an online Python course on DataCamp and had more lessons during my graduate study at Columbia University last year. I prefer a minimalist approach, as storytelling tools should be instrumental. I don’t like to wallpaper everything. This brings another difficult task of choosing the best combination of elements — sound, text, video, photos, and graphics — to assist the particular narrative. On top of that, social media users have shorter attention spans. How to quickly unpack a nuanced story in a few minutes, sometimes seconds, poses another challenge.

Shirley Ying Han

Changes can come by spreading knowledge and stories. What is your journalism philosophy and mission?

For many years, I had been creating outreach videos for nonprofit organizations. Through these projects, I encountered many rights groups and courageous individuals, reconnecting myself with some of the least privileged members of our society. Some were forced to relocate, whereas others underwent substantial hardships. But beneath all the difficulties, they remained appreciative and hopeful. I really believe good local journalism is the cornerstone of our social cartography, and we need to have the whole community represented on the map. As a journalist, my mission is to inform the public with the necessary information to navigate society and self-govern. But in an age where more and more media are moving towards international news, local journalism is in crisis. When local journalism declines, so does government transparency. Words have the power to shape thoughts. I want to re-inject local journalism back to these outlets, by finding the universality of different human experiences and telling their stories in a way that balances local importance and global relevance. National and foreign policies also affect the lives of local communities. I’m also interested in examining complex geopolitical issues and help local viewers understand how global events and public policies change their lives.

Shirley Ying Han

What do you like most about your job? What are the most important goals in your career What gave you the strength to go on and achieve your goals?

I love the energy associated with my job, meeting different people all the time, and analytically examining their unique experiences. I also relish the process of research and discovery, where I learn new facts and perspectives every day. I’m not saying these traits are exclusive to journalism jobs, but merely pointing out my favorite part. There is a very nerdy side of me that’s leaning more towards history and policy research. My goal is to ultimately help myself and others comprehend public policies and what better alternatives are available. Good journalism facilitates positive change. I hope my work can contribute to that collective effort required to build an equal society. Curiosity and fulfillment also motivate me. Everyone only has a limited amount of time to live, so why not make the best out of it and do things that empower me and others?

Shirley Ying Han

Besides China, you have lived and worked in many countries around the world: South Korea, Iran, Hong Kong, France, and the USA. What are the main differences you noticed in opportunities and rights? Does traveling help you to more understand human beings?

Since my early twenties, I have believed the best way to understand international affairs was by engaging with people from different countries and regions. Those culturally diverse individuals have made my journey such a rich and insightful experience. In a way, strangers have shaped my life. Travel is the best antidote to ignorance. Every place offers its own opportunities and rights, depending on your circumstances. I tend to look at the separation of powers that guards against corruption and the cost of justice for individuals to defend their rights. Since the founding of South Korea, the country has transformed from an authoritarian state to a liberal democracy. What impressed me the most is people’s protest culture there. South Koreans turn to have this fundamental belief in their rights and see democracy as a combination of a political system and civic activism. Similarly, in other liberal democratic countries, the rule of law gives people a means to correct institutional failures through the legal process and civic engagement. The Chinese government lifted hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty, but its development model has also created dramatic and growing gaps between the poor and the privileged. Authorities attach great importance to muting domestic and international criticism. Defending one’s political and socio-economic rights remains at the mercy of politicians or well-connected individuals.

The Iranians have been going through their own quest for societal and individual freedoms. Its current political system a hybrid of a theocracy and democracy that imposes strict control over the opposition. In Tehran, I witnessed police brutality during a crackdown on student protests in 2008. On another occasion, my colleagues and I were detained as we attempted to report on general elections. Women, in particular, are discriminated against by law, and authorities perceive gender equality movements as a proliferation of western culture.

Shirley Ying Han

Your master’s project highlights the challenges in prosecuting transnational crimes and the economic empowerment of undocumented Chinese female workers in the U.S. How big is the situation? What has been achieved and what is still to be done to overcome this problem?

My story is about an undocumented low-skilled Chinese woman who left home for a prosperous life in New York but eventually became a precarious sex worker in a massage parlor. Inspired by Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2018 film Shoplifters, I took an empathetic approach to tell so-called “crimes” carried out by marginalized communities without a social safety net. I was on a mission to find out how China’s economic boom in the past four decades has failed to empower this lady and many other rural women like her. Through reporting, I realized how social conditions could inform personal decisions. A stigma often surrounds women working in the sex trade without acknowledging their individual circumstances, making these women even more marginalized.

She is a multimedia journalist covering general news, international affairs, and socio-economic issues for television broadcasting and online digital platforms. Shirley Ying Han has produced special video features and documentaries for major news networks

There is so much to say about this subject. Still, in short, the uneven development in China favoring some provinces and cities have led to vast social inequalities between populations, rural and urban in particular. Environmental degradation and governance that lacks gender-responsive policies and laws have further tapered the social mobility of low-skilled female workers. The source country needs to work on improving their economic prospects to fight against human trafficking and sex slavery. In the destination countries, specific structural forces within society and language barriers limit these women from expanding their professional opportunities. They often resort to loans to pay for fraudulent visa assistance and travel arrangements. The pressure to repay their debts drives them to seek a fast way to earn money. Much needs to be done, such as policing practice and professional development. But in some U.S. cities, authorities have already made efforts to redefine the perpetrators and victims of the commercial sex trade. For example, every Friday at the Queens’ Human Trafficking Intervention Court in New York, judges hear women charged with prostitution or loitering. Multi-linguistic teams of attorneys, interpreters, and social workers and counselors screen potential victims of trafficking and provide them with additional assistance. Defendants could either fight their case in a conventional court or make a deal here by enrolling in five-session counseling that usually lasts for a month. Upon completing the program without further offense, their charges will be dismissed, and record sealed.

Shirley Ying Han

You made a documentary film“When The Last Tree Dies” on the water crisis in the North China Plain that received the Award of Excellence at the 2014 Canada International Film Festival. Problems like this are spreading all around the world. Do you think people are getting aware of the current environmental situation and water pollution?

Global awareness is undoubtedly there, but the challenge lies in taking concrete actions. A lot of this has to do with economic incentives. Our electoral cycles are at odds with our long-term environmental and economic interests. Short mandates motivate policymakers to focus on short-term priorities. This is where civil society can engage their roles, pressuring politicians for new market incentives to reduce pollution. The recent rise of youth activism has also shaped the debate around climate change. Sixteen teens from across the globe, including Greta Thunberg, filed a legal human rights complaint accusing five of the world’s major economies of inaction on the climate crisis. Their arguments serve an excellent incentive for adults to be more conscious of our carbon footprint. The question now is how to harness that incentive and turn it into economic policies.

Shirley Ying Han

On one side digital technology helps to improve participation and to get more information. On the other side World, wide web citizens are facing media manipulation and disinformation. How Social Media has changed Journalism?

Social media certainly has offered new storytelling tools to make news more accurate and interactive. The roles of journalists have expanded in a multimedia-and-technological direction. Now journalists often share their own experiences and opinions on social media to which viewers can respond. This direct dialogue can provide more transparency to the reporting process, which is vital for good journalism practices. On social media, we can quickly reach out to broader sources and take their stories further. But there is also less time to vet information as the public has a shorter attention span, and media outlets are competing for breaking news. Amid concerns about the spread of misinformation and disinformation, media organizations have revived their emphasis on fact-checking in recent years. Many have reinforced their fact-checking teams. There are also standalone organizations specialized in such tasks. These efforts are helping journalists redefine their workflow to meet society’s new requirement for credibility and transparency.

Photos courtesy of Shirley Ying Han

Last Updated on 2022/04/22

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