On Friday, October 30, The Politic hosted an intimate conversation with Isobel Yeung, a long-form documentary correspondent for Vice News. Her work on the Yemeni Civil War earned two Emmy Awards and her piece on Afghan women’s rights earned a Gracie Award.
Discussion moderated by Hadley Copeland. Transcription by Razel Suansing.
The Politic: Can you give us a sense of your background in journalism and how you came to work with Vice?
Yeung: My journey into journalism was not very conventional. I studied Chinese in university. I didn’t feel massively skilled in terms of getting a job [after graduating]. What I knew was that I had a huge thirst for travel and exploring the world. I grew up in a very small town in Southern England, so I had a real desire to go out, see things, and start experiencing things. I moved to Shanghai in 2009 and found myself working for the Chinese State media, which is a really great way to figure exactly what not to do in journalism.
I [later] made my way to freelance journalism. I’ve always had an affinity for TV because TV reaches such a big audience. Vice at the time was really exciting for me because they were interested in international stories, which is kind of rare. I also felt that they had a real platform and a real desire to tell these stories in a narrative that wasn’t really getting across in the West, and certainly not in the U.S.
Immersive-style documentary felt truthful in a lot of ways to what it was like to be on the ground. I felt that if mainstream media gave international stories any time at all, it felt like a glossy package.
Where do you see journalism going in the next decade? There’s this idea that traditional journalism is dying. Do you think the field as a whole is growing or do you think there’s going to be stagnation?
I see both sides. It’s sad that we’re seeing this slow strangulation of local media, but at the same time, you’re seeing so much evolution in terms of the amount of platforms that are available—a real growth in streaming platforms. We’re seeing digital journalism, citizen journalism. I think there will always be a need for finding out the truth, and now more so than ever, because it’s so easy to spread disinformation. Finding out what the truth is has become harder and harder.
How do you see social media playing into [the spread of disinformation]?
I think social media has made it so easy for me to get a hold of sources in places that would be really hard to find before the days of Twitter. [But] there’s a huge spread of disinformation that we have to train ourselves on. That has muddied the waters for a lot of people.
In 2019 you produced a piece about the Uighurs in China. Can you walk us through how you have navigated the harsh restrictions on reporting on the topic?
The story on the Muslim Uighurs takes place in Xinjiang, which is the strictest surveillance state in the world right now. Everyone’s getting their faces scanned, their irises scanned—your phone is plugged into malware to make sure that you’re not logging into foreign sites.
In terms of reporting on it, I kind of knew the area and I wanted to get more of a raw and intimate picture of what was going on. We went undercover as tourists and used hidden cameras. Before I went there, I knew from an intellectual level what was going on, but it’s really hard to state how suffocating it could be. I’ve reported in a lot of conflict zones before, and I knew where the danger was coming from. But in Xinjiang, the danger is all around you.
Why haven’t we seen a response [from] a lot of Muslim-majority nations [against] what’s going on in China?
It’s really disappointing for a lot of Uighur individuals, and it just really speaks on China’s power politically and economically. You also don’t want to get on the wrong side of China. They have this “One Belt One Road [Initiative]” developing across the world, and it runs in a lot of developing countries that have Muslim-majorities. Turkey was one of the only countries that stood up for the Uighur people, but since then, talking to the foreign ministry, that isn’t their policy anymore.
What is the most trite story told by big U.S. news outlets in the Middle East that is either overdone or miscommunicated to U.S. audiences?
Most stories are just underdone.
One thing that frustrated me in China was that when I was pitching these stories as a freelancer, people were just interested in stories that promoted China as “big, bad, scary China” or “freaky China.” Quite a lot of media, myself included, find ourselves falling into those traps and taking stories that advance these narratives.
In the Middle East, obviously the fight against terror has been covered pretty widely, but I don’t know if the average person is aware of a lot of the nuances—like why a person fights for a terrorist group or the underlying social factors that contribute to young people in al-Qaeda and ISIS. The only way to get people to care about these [events is] through stories and through building sympathy for people around the world.
People’s stories are what we relate to and care about.
What goes through your mind when there is denial from these people in power and you’re trying to obtain the truth?
It’s twofold. Firstly, I prepare for everything pretty well and I feel like I need to read everything that’s been documented everywhere for the people I have to interview. Then, in some ways I try to forget all of that and relate to that person, because I think it’s important to find humanity and a common ground and to allow them to have the platform and say their peace.
At the same time, [I also keep in mind], ‘What has this person actually done or said in the past that needs to be held accountable? What is the impact [of their actions] on individuals that I’ve met?’
Ultimately, I’m just a voice for them.