Q&A with Susan Tart, journalist at China.org

Susan Tart is an American journalist living in Beijing, China, where she has spent the past two years. As a member of the staff at China.org, she has covered the 2008 Olympics, the one-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake and has even had the chance to interview the legendary “Back Dorm Boys.” Tart graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007 with a double major in journalism and international studies, and a minor in Chinese. In this Q&A, conducted by e-mail, Tart talks about her job and journalism in China.

Q: Describe your job at China.org. What do you do on a typical day?

A. As any news job, it pays to be in-the-know regarding local and global events, so first thing in the morning I try to read-in. During the day, I usually copy edit several articles and then spend the rest of the time working on a broadcast story.

Most of that time goes into research. As a foreigner, I find it difficult to make contacts and know which organizations/companies will be likely to give an interview (much less trust me), so just the research for one interview can sometimes take longer than all other aspects of the story combined.

News in China is much more relaxed than in the States, so while deadlines do exist, I’m not usually stressed about getting a story done. Lunch is important in the Chinese culture, and so it takes place every day, with a minimum of 75 minutes … even when there is “breaking news.”

Q. You’ve found yourself doing copy editing as part of your job. As a person trained in broadcast, what is that like?

I knew I’d be copy editing when I took the job, although my main focus was to produce video stories and develop the video section of the site. However, the company is more like a state owned enterprise (SOE) — and in typical fashion of bureaucratic organizations, accomplishing that task has proved quite slow and difficult.

I think copy editing is almost inevitable when working in a country that operates in another language. Sometimes it can be amusing, as some of the articles are loaded with hilarious Chinglish words and phrases. Other times it can be frustrating.

Most of my coworkers studied English in school rather than journalism (much less broadcast journalism), so I often end up teaching how to write news articles when I copy edit them. It’s great to watch their writing skills make progress. The English and Chinese languages have very different ways of presenting the news, so even coworkers who have mastered the language don’t necessarily understand what’s important to include in an article targeted at a native English-speaking audience.

Q: The Chinese government controls the media there, and it blocks some sites such as Facebook and Twitter. What is it like to work as a journalist in a more restricted environment?

To be honest, it’s not as bad as I had originally thought it would be. Or maybe I should say it’s not how I thought it would be.

I was allowed to go after pretty much any story I wanted to in the beginning. Even though my boss never rejected me, I found that the people here would often censor themselves. As I learned only after running in circles from contacting government agencies day after day, it’s pretty much impossible to do some stories (even those with a positive message), especially with a camera. After the first three months, I was told to stop trying to cover the news, and I’d have more success. Truest thing I’ve ever been told.

About a month ago, there was a gas explosion at a Uyghur restaurant not too far from the office. However, everyone was informed to not cover the story, as it was potentially sensitive. We could only report what the main government news source said. That was frustrating as a journalist who is trained that such events dominate headlines.

Another time I recall is when the top boss told me I could go to Tiananmen on June 4th (though publishing a story about it wasn’t guaranteed). However, a less-high-up coworker freaked out and convinced the boss they’d all lose their jobs for life if I went.

The news is conducted in a hierarchical manner here, and fear of disrupting that system runs how it gets reported. Understanding that concept makes life a lot easier. Other than that, you have to have a sense of humor and be optimistic. Change and opening up takes time; you can’t force it.

Q. How do you think your experiences in China will shape you for a journalism career back in the United States?

It will no doubt be a huge advantage for me. As China’s power and influence increase, life in the U.S. will inevitably be affected by it more and more.

Whether it’s local, national or business news in the States, I think it will be vital to understand the Chinese culture(s), government and how/why everything is done the way it is in China. The importance of networking in China can’t be overstated, so the contacts I’m forming now will definitely prove useful later in life.

As the news here can’t really express dissent about the government, a lot of it tends to hate on America. While this can sometimes give me high blood pressure, I honestly believe I’m gaining valuable insight and learning crucial perceptions— which I think are important for the bilateral relationship China and the U.S. will have in the future.

UPDATE: In 2010, Tart moved to Blue Ocean Network, also based in Beijing.