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Journalism Goes Global

Story by
Nancy Joseph

As Michael Carter walked down the streets of Freetown in Sierra Leone, passersby would often call out, “White guy!” At first the greeting bothered him. Later it inspired him to pen a popular newspaper column, “The White Guy.” 

That was just one of the many surprising twists during a two-month internship at Awoko, a daily newspaper in Freetown. 

Carter was one of three UW journalism students who spent the summer abroad as interns at English-language newspapers. They were funded through the Department of Communication’s Journalism Foreign Intrigue Scholarship, created by an anonymous donor to encourage students to live and work abroad. While Carter worked in Sierra Leone, classmates Tiffany Wan and Maureen Trantham interned in Jakarta, Indonesia and Shanghai, China. A fourth student, assigned to Cambodia, had to cancel for personal reasons.

“Through these internships, students understand journalism in the context of other countries,” says Gerald Baldasty, chair of the Department of Communication. “And they are immersed in another culture. They are not tourists. They are living and working there; they are part of the fabric of the community. I think they did things they didn’t know they were capable of doing—and may not have the opportunity to do again.”

Seriously Lonely in Sierra Leone

For Michael Carter, the opportunity to work abroad held huge appeal. But the prospect of living in Sierra Leone, the least developed of the internship destinations, was daunting. 

Michael Carter (center) poses with staff of Awoko, the newspaper at which he interned in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Michael Carter (center) poses with staff of Awoko, the newspaper at which he interned in Freetown, Sierra Leone. 

“My first choice was Shanghai,” admits Carter, a double major in journalism and Japanese. “When I was told I’d been assigned to Sierra Leone, that seemed a bit scary. I told them I’d have to think about it. But then I realized that not many people are lucky enough to get a scholarship to do an internship in a foreign country. I realized it was a real privilege.”

Carter figured one of the pluses of reporting from Sierra Leone would be that English is the official language. But he quickly discovered that many people speak Krio, a derivative of English. And those who do speak English have accents that are difficult to decipher. “It took a while before I felt comfortable quoting people,” he says. “A few weeks in, the accent was more understandable to me.”

It also took time for Carter to acclimate to life in Freetown. “Everything looked like it was in shambles,” he recalls. “Poverty was everywhere. And strangers come up to you all the time and introduce themselves. That’s the culture. Eventually I made friends with some of them, but at first I found it intimidating. I wasn’t prepared for that.”

With no other Americans to help ease the transition, Carter also felt isolated. He befriended other reporters from the newspaper—he was paired with them for assignments —but when his colleagues went home to their families at night, Carter faced long evenings alone. The turning point came halfway through the internship, when he traveled to a more rural area with a UNICEF crew. “When I got back from that trip, something had changed,” he says. “I was just a lot more comfortable meeting people and doing things independently.”

That was good timing, since the Intra Press Service (IPS), a large online international news bureau, called during the UNICEF trip to ask if Carter would write stories for IPS in addition to his work at Awoko. For a journalism student just starting out, it was a plum assignment. And the upcoming elections in Sierra Leone gave him plenty to write about.

Carter had already covered raucous political rallies and press conferences at which it was not uncommon for the press corps to be shoved by the police. Now he was asked to interview candidates about controversial issues such as female circumcision. And he was penning “The White Guy,” an editorial column for Awoko that offered his outsider’s perspective on Freetown. “I didn’t think anyone really read the column,” says Carter, “but then I would meet people and they would say, ‘Oh, the White Guy from the newspaper!’ People wanted to meet me. I wrote about 20 of those columns while I was there.”

By the time Carter returned to Seattle, dozens of his articles and columns had been published by Awoko and IPS. But looking back on the trip, he considers his personal growth as important as those professional successes. “I feel proud of my work there, the people I met, and the ties I made,” says Carter. “I learned that, in a situation like that, you need to adapt and be respectful to the culture. If you can do that, you’ll be fine.”

An International Citizen in Jakarta

Tiffany Wan’s internship experience was different from Carter’s in nearly every way. She was far less isolated, meeting expatriates from all over the world through her job at The Jakarta Post and her homestay. In fact her social calendar was packed. But getting meaty assignments at the newspaper? That was a different story. 

When Wan began her internship, her editor seemed unclear about Wan’s role and provided little guidance. This was in stark contrast to past internships Wan had held at the Northwest Asian Weekly, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Seattle Weekly, and the Seattle Times. (“One of my professors told me that I may have set a record for internships,” jokes Wan, a double major in journalism and cinema studies.)

“In past internships, editors were there to mold my story ideas and help with the editing process,” says Wan. “But in this situation, if interns didn’t have the tenacity to put themselves out there, they’d be completely lost.” 

Language challenges didn’t help. Although The Jakarta Post is published in English, not all interview subjects spoke English, and Wan knew just a handful of Indonesian words. “I had a lot of anxiety about the language barrier the first few weeks,” says Wan. “After that I was able to work around it, finding sources who spoke English or finding other staff members who could come along on an interview and translate. But it did make it hard to do tougher stories.” 

Tiffany Wan (left), preparing a story on past winners of Indonesian pageants, poses with teh 2004 Puteri Indonesia pageant winner.

Tiffany Wan (left), preparing a story on past winners of Indonesian pageants, poses with teh 2004 Puteri Indonesia pageant winner. 

Wan’s first feature story covered familiar territory. Having participated in the Miss Chinese Seattle 2005 Pageant, she decided to cover the Miss Indonesia pageant in Jakarta. She later learned that her story about the pageant was the most frequently read feature on The Jakarta Post’s website that day. Then came a feature about past winners of Puteri Indonesia, a similar pageant. “Apparently I’ve already been pigeonholed,” she commented in a blog at the time.

There were other stories, including a profile of the founder of Jakarta’s first gay film festival and a feature on a Seattle non-profit group working in Jakarta. Wan also wrote art and restaurant reviews and worked on an update of the newspaper’s web design and content. But she admits that the internship ended up being “more about life experience than serious job experience.”

“What Jakarta really ignited in my mind,” says Wan, “was the idea of being an international citizen—being aware that there is so much more in the world than what’s here in Seattle. It’s important to understand the world outside you.” 

Stretching in Shanghai

Maureen Trantham, assigned to Shanghai, had considerable travel experience prior to her internship. She had, in fact, interned at an English-language newspaper in Bangkok before starting college. She looked forward to capping her UW education with another international internship and assumed that living in cosmopolitan Shanghai would be fairly easy. 

Maureen Trantham (visiting the Summer Palace in Beijing) interned at the Shanghai Star.

Maureen Trantham (visiting the Summer Palace in Beijing) interned at the Shanghai Star. 

She was wrong. Big city or not, China presented its own set of challenges. “I came feeling pretty cocky,” admits Trantham, who majored in journalism and comparative history of ideas. “Now I would have to say that China is probably the most challenging place I’ve ever been. There were such gulfs in understanding, in learning what is and isn’t appropriate in situations. Making myself understood was really difficult. It stretched me.”

Trantham interned at the Shanghai Star, a newspaper geared toward expatriates and English-literate business people. She soon discovered that the newspaper’s interns—mostly Chinese students with parental connections—were expected to do nothing. “I was asking for assignments and the editors were confused,” recalls Trantham. 

Undaunted, Trantham began proposing ideas. She offered to redesign the publication. She repeatedly suggested stories. She was relentless. “I wanted this to be a really powerful job experience, so I pulled an ‘American’ and strong-armed my way into one,” she says. “Before long the editors saw that I could actually be useful.”

By the end of the internship, Trantham had led a publication redesign and written dozens of articles. Language was rarely a problem, since most of Trantham’s interview subjects spoke decent English. Her most ambitious story focused on H&M, a major discount clothing chain that had recently opened a branch in Shanghai. Trantham reported on H&M’s initiative to reduce overtime and improve conditions in Chinese factories.

“Everyone asks me what censorship is like in China,” says Trantham. “That story is where I first encountered a sense of ‘spin.’ I was told, ‘We don’t call them factories; we call them manufacturing facilities. And don’t talk about conditions, just talk about overtime because we don’t want to look bad.’” 

Outside of work, some of Trantham’s fondest memories of Shanghai involved unexpected connections with local people. Neighbors asked her to tutor their daughter in English; they became close friends. On a crowded bus, Trantham caught the attention of a teenager who was listening to one of Trantham’s favorite tunes on an iPod; soon the two of them were bopping to the music together. “Seriously whimsical,” she says of the iPod incident.

Whimsy aside, Trantham wishes more UW journalism students had the opportunity to intern outside the U.S.

“It forces you, as a journalist, to be in situations that require a great deal of research and nuance,” says Trantham. “You must be able to adapt. I really think that an experience like this makes you a more nimble writer.”