Interview with Steve Chao, presenter for Al Jazeera's '101 East' documentary series

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Posted By On Dit Editors @ Monday, 24 October 2016 11:36 PM

So what do you do?

I am the senior presenter of 101 East. Basically I host the 101 East programs and introduce our story of the week, and I also go ahead and do my own documentaries and investigations.

How do you tend to find a story, or do they usually come to you?

It is a total mix of all that. Sometimes, you meet someone on the way while we’re doing a story and they suggest a story, or they talk about an issue that is interesting. Other times I’m reading something and I find something that could be a potential stories for us. We have a lot of sources as well that we rely on in countries around Asia and other parts of the world that constantly suggest stories. So it’s a mix of finding your information from everywhere, sometimes it’s social media, sometimes it’s on twitter, something that someone tweets, a picture on Instagram, sometimes it really is a phone call or an email from somebody. As a journalist you need to get your information from a variety of sources. That’s the only way we can ensure that the stories we have on our program are diverse enough and offer viewers an interesting collection on what’s happening in different spheres of the world.

How much work goes into a documentary?

I’d say you could work none stop. Such as your research for your documentary and you’re planning for a documentary, it can become all consuming. But the only thing holding us back are timelines, the deadlines. So theoretically we have a month, a month and a half at best to research a piece, we usually have two weeks to shoot it, and then two weeks to edit it and one week to write it in between the edit and the shooting. So, it’s a tight timeline and the pressure that we’re under on this program is because we try to create 52 programs a year, one show every week. And each of us journalists are expected to produce a limited number of program but it’s a lot more because we are a small team. So the pressure under us is pretty huge, so we try to really balance good journalism and make sure we do our fact checking and researching and do all that while working still under the time pressures.
 
Is there an advantage in understanding the world’s global issues?

I answered to that would be multi-tiered. One thing that I’ve learned from my years of reporting is that it is important as an individual of this planet to be informed about what’s going on around the world. I think that throughout history we’ve seen the negative impacts of not caring. Here in Malaysia for example, the MH370 plane was an example of that. I would say that in a lot of ways that lack of scrutiny into the functions of Malaysia Airlines, and into the air force, allowed for a big passenger airliner took off and somehow disappear from radar, then came back in radar, and still no one scrambled. If to this day, if the air force scrambled at the right time to find out what happened to this passenger jet, why is came back to the airspace, we might know the fate of the MH370. If there had been pressure and scrutiny on the air force to say “Hey, do your job, you’re accountable.” Maybe the people looking at their radar, would have done their job, we would know the fate of more than 300 passengers. September 11th in New York, I covered the event’s one year anniversary and one interesting part there is, if Americans, if the world cared more about failed states, like Afghanistan at the time, perhaps we could have avoided that. If the world devoted more resources in helping the poor in those countries, because that is what a lot of these issues of terrorism is about, it’s the have and have nots, it’s not about religion. If we do take a more concerted interest in parts of the world that needs help, in a lot of ways we’d be protecting ourselves too.

I’ve noticed that in the last several years of more of an inward looking approach in many countries, whether it would be Australia or elsewhere. A feeling that ‘hey we should only just care about our own. We care about what’s going on in our own community only. Not what’s going on in a far foreign country.’ The way we handle issues that confront a nation are forever altered by the lack of being informed. You see countries like Germany for example, opening its doors to refugees, in a lot of ways that it a bit due to its history. Germans are reminded time and again what it was like to be under the control of the Nazis. They supported the Nazis in World War II and what it meant to be xenophobic, what it meant to hate Jews, and they have been reminded of that. They were reminded of how important it is to live in a world community.

You can’t make informed decisions, without being informed about the world. And you can’t make informed decisions on issues within your own countries without being informed about the world. Perhaps they problems with our politicians and perhaps with ourselves in deciding issues is due to a lack of understanding. I encourage everybody to get involved, informed.

At The University of Adelaide, we have many aspiring journalists, do you have any advice?

This is probably one of the toughest media environments for a new generation of aspiring journalists to get into. But! In saying that, I have been in journalism for 20 years, I have seen a number of layoffs. When I got into journalism, the station I was at, was having layoffs and the director's advice at the time was just, if you work harder than anyone else, if you stick to good journalism, if you’re there in the morning  before anyone else, if you check out after anyone else, if you have that hard work ethic and you passionately pursue journalism, there will be a place for you. That holds true to today. If you don’t give up the hunt, if you look for opportunities and don’t limit yourself saying I just want to live in Adelaide, or Sydney or Melbourne, perhaps Cambodia? If you don't limit yourself and you work hard, I think you’ll find a place.
 
In this day and age, the challenge for the new generation is, what will journalism look like in 10 years? Ajazeera+ is an example of a new form of journalism, online videos with words applied on social media that people are watching, digestible bits of news. Online is going to play a huge part and already is.  So, journalism is going to be shifted in how people take in information in this new age. So it might mean placing yourself in a totally foreign city, and being a citizen journalist that is getting paid by certain organization as a freelance, that is a model reflected alot nowadays.

So my advice to young journalists, is to be able to do it all, TV, radio, print, online, know how to code and at the same time, be willing to be flexible, move your location. Ask yourself, what sacrifices are you going to live with to reach that goal in becoming a journalist. You have to really want it in this day and age in order to get a position somewhere. 

When it comes to tackling a story, can it be a challenge to remain unbiased?

You know, you’re trying to tell a compelling story, yet at the end of the day, you have to be truthful to the people who are your characters in your story.

What is the motivation? And you might learn that as a child he had been bugged by a catholic priest or raped by somebody else. And then he was mentally unstable and then you can learn that the healthcare system wasn’t there for him to treat him psychologically. And then you would be looking at ways and solutions to an issue. Instead of passing judgement, I don’t think we should as journalists we should just-

Be there to inform.

Yeah, exactly!

You have been in the frontline and from my understanding you may have even had some close calls, would you call yourself a hard-core journalist?

I think I am very soft when it comes to issues that affect the disadvantage in the world. I just did a speech with a group of high school students. I was sharing them about courage and with courage of the people I have met along the way. I was talking to them about the Canadian soldiers that I knew that were killed in Afghanistan. And you know, it was hard not to cry. Because you know their sacrifice and when you get to know them, they get to become friends and you also who they leave behind. A good person that I met, blue-eyed, good-looking, charismatic, all-star athlete type of guy, he was a special force soldier, he was defending the general of southern Afghanistan and he got blown up by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). I was trying to talk to his wife afterwards, and in realizing that he left behind two young children; it breaks your heart.

So, I would never classify myself as a hardcore journalist. I mean yes I have been in Afghanistan when the war first broke out, I have been covering Afghanistan for 15 years. I have been blown up for IEDs, I have been RPG’d, I have been in the middle of firefights, I’ve come off helicopters, I ‘ve done 20km night marches into battle, I’ve seen people die, I’ve seen the Taliban blow themselves up, suicide bombers. So yeah, I have experienced a lot. I think that, my heart always breaks for sadness and sorry and pain and suffering.

Isn’t that an important part of being human?

I think you have to care. I think that those who say you have to remove yourself from a story. I don’t subscribe to that philosophy of removing yourself as a journalist from a story emotionally. I think you do have to care, you do have to have empathy, and you have to have sympathy for those you do stories on. But, at the same time, you have to remain objective. And that’s often a hard thing. 

As a big island, Australia can do to what most countries cannot: divert refugees away. What is your opinion on this topic?

As a journalist I don’t think we’re allowed to have opinions. At this day and age I think me and a lot of journalists are pushed to have opinions, especially on social media, but I try my best not to. I think there are some serious questions that Australians and the Australian government need to ask of themselves. Those questions are: Is it right to turn refugees away? What about the international UN obligations? Is it right as a human, to turn away another human? There are other issues of the treatment of those that are turned away. Are they getting the right treatment? Are they being abused? Are they getting proper food and proper housing? All these issues.
 

I come from Canada, a nation that is probably one of the most multicultural in the world. And I have had the stark contrast in living both in the US and Canada and seeing how approaches to immigrants, approaches to different races, very different. We have all seen the Ferguson shootings, the issues that Black Lives Matters campaign and the divide between races and the US. But in Canada you don’t get that, you don’t get much of that. I grew up learning that you don’t see colour, you don’t see differences, you embrace differences and I’ve seen it work in Canada, where immigrants do take up a lot of the jobs that a lot of Canadians who have been around for a long time don’t want. And I have seen refugees become part of Canada and contribute to society. So, there is always a fear of refugees and the impact that they would have on a country from crime, to whether they’re a drain on natural resources or a drain on the economy on the citizens. But I think the lesson of Canada is that they haven’t been. But an ageing population in many developed countries are dealing with, they can deal with a little bit influx, perhaps, of more people. On the flip side, the other issue is just, whether these are the right kind of immigrants that you want and whether there is a better system to facilitate immigration into Australia. And these are issues that I think Australians need to deal with, this is their own country but once again I suggest that they look into the experiences of the rest of the world and make an informed decision based on those experiences and not just on the knee jerk reaction of the boatloads of refugees arriving.

I still remember in Canada in the 1990s when Chinese stowaways came in rusty vessels onto the shores of Canada. It was a healthy debate about this as well. Should Canada accept these refugees or are they just economic migrants? And there was a tough debate that Canada waged and in the end they ended up accepting a lot of them. And recently, under the liberal government in Canada, Canada received 25,000 Syrian refugees. And what is clear in this world today, is that there are more refugees or asylum seekers in the world today, to a level that we haven’t seen since World War II. And the question for all of us is, are we going to be Australian citizens? Are we going to be American citizens? UK citizens? Or are we going to be world citizens? Do we have a responsibility to care about those in need around the world? So there are many issues to look at.

In one of the 101 East Documentaries in Malaysia you explored a refugee camp by disguising yourself as a priest with a hidden camera, how did it feel at the time, to take that risk, and to talk to the people there?

It’s always nerve wrecking to assume an identity in an investigation. It’s the last thing you’d want to do because it’s really dicey. Because what if you get found out? Often, it should be the last resort to try to gain access to somewhere, to try to get access to somebody that you’re sort of hunting in your investigation. In this case, we were left with no choice. We weren’t getting access to these immigration detention centres. So the only way to truly get to understand what’s happening is to see what’s happening. So that’s why we made the decision to put on a disguise.

Your heart pumps, when you know you’re in that character, in this case a priest and you’re going in and you have your hidden camera rolling in your body, you don’t know if you’re going to get strip searched at that time or you’re going to get x-rayed at that time. You’re not sure if someone is going to out you or recognise as somebody else or as we really are. So there are a lot of things at play. I’ve done a number of these investigations over the years and I just feel like this is just such an important thing to do. And when we were in there, I was reminded of why it was so important. Because we had an opportunity then to see what a lot of what refugees have been telling us in terms of their treatment in these detention centres. We got to see what a lot of Non-governmental organisations were citing their concerns about the treatment. And that’s what we’re here for.  To expose what is going on and let the world decide on whether it’s right or wrong and so I thought it was very important to that and I thought that at the end of the day, I was happy that we did that.

Golden Question: One Horse-Sized Duck or 100 Duck-Sized Horses?

I’d rather fight one horse sized duck. I would try to come at that horse sized duck from all angles and not let it know that I’m coming. That’s my approach sometimes when I take on a big scary person in an investigation. You try to work on the edges out of their periphery and then you try to gather as much information or ammo if you will, and then at the very end, approach that horse sized duck. If you’re dealing with a lot of little horsey ducks, it’s hard because you don’t know where they are and when they are going to be coming at you, so it’s easier to go after one. Which is also a story of our need to focus in our pieces, you can look at a broad issue with lots of horse and ducks and at the end give viewers a better watered down version or a story or condense it down to one focus, simpler for people to digest, and explore that in more depth and people can walk away with much more.

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Check out Al Jazeera 101 East here.

Tags: Interviews