Behind the Scenes with Stephanie Chuang

I recently interviewed Stephanie Chuang, an anchor-reporter at the KSBW station, an NBC affiliate in the Central Coast region California. She is an ’07 graduate of Northwestern University, majoring in broadcast journalism and Asian American studies. In a business with so much attention and publicity, she shared her experiences both on-screen and off-screen as a young Taiwanese American professional.

Lisa: How did you become interested in the field of journalism?

Stephanie: It started off with my love for reading kindergarten, which grew into a passion for typing out creative stories everyday after school. Long story short – in high school, I channeled that love for writing into my school paper, “The Smoke Signal,” which was my first step into journalism.

To be more specific on how I got interested in broadcast journalism, it was a combination of things. I remember watching broadcast journalists on television and wondering what that would be like. That, coupled with my father’s colleague, a reporter at CNN at the time, telling my family about his broadcast adventures at a lunch in Los Angeles one day got me thinking about television news. In college, students in the journalism program had to decide between three tracks: magazine, television or print (newspaper). I was stuck on the last two but in the end, I chose broadcast because of how many people it reaches and the emotion you can convey in a story when people see and hear things in your pieces. Not only that, but it was the start of the noticeable downturn of the print business, as a result of the internet.

Lisa: How did your college experience at Medill help you break into the industry?

Stephanie: Medill, the journalism school at Northwestern, is a great program. I had never really thought about applying to a journalism school but I learned that Medill was 25 percent journalism courses and 75 percent general curriculum. The one thing that really pushed me forward as a broadcast journalist was Medill’s Teaching Media program. Basically, the school has longstanding ties with magazine, newspaper and television company sites all around the country. You are sent to one of the locations for a quarter-long internship, but it’s not like the other internships I’ve done where sometimes it feels like an unpaid assistant position. I was sent to the NBC affiliate in Topeka, Kansas – yeah, not a place I ever imagined I would visit, much less live and work for a few months (ended up loving my time there). My assignment was what they call a “one-man band” reporter, where I shot, wrote, and edited my own stories (or “packages” – stories that are about a minute thirty seconds).

It was the best experience I could get because I turned in a package everyday, sometimes going live. You need this kind of experience because the news business can’t be learned in a classroom. You have to learn by doing, and on a regular basis. I later interned at the station I work at now, mustered up some courage and showed the news director (the head of the news department who makes hiring decisions) my reel from Topeka. From that, he could see that I could be more than an intern, and a year later after keeping in touch with him, I was hired for a reporter position.

Lisa: What kinds of difficulties have you encountered through your career as a journalist?

Stephanie: How about what difficulties haven’t I encountered? Haha, well, if you want to pursue this industry, you have to learn to grow a thick skin. People will criticize you, especially if you’re younger. Be humble, and stay that way. I think it’s easy sometimes for on-air personalities to grow a big head because people start to recognize you on the streets, ask to take pictures with you, ask for your autographs, and some might begin to buy into some crazy idea that they’re a local star. There are a LOT of egos in the newsroom. You have to work so hard and love competition, as well as pressure because you work under daily deadlines and oftentimes, breaking news.

If you’re getting into the business, especially television news, because you want to be famous or make a lot of money, then get out now because it doesn’t happen that way. The industry easily and quickly weeds out those who are in it for the wrong reasons, because you start in a small market where your pay is virtually nil. What’s more, the industry has been, like the rest of the economy, downsizing itself. I’ve been very blessed with where I am and how far I’ve gotten since I graduated, but it was definitely after paying my dues. I’m talking six unpaid internships, at stations big and small. One of those was working under a pregnant anchorwoman, which only doubled the “gopher labor” so to speak. But like I said, it has been worth it, and I feel so lucky to be able to do what I love for a living.

Lisa: Have you ever met any discrimination at your network or with the people you interview?

Stephanie: I’ve been pretty lucky on that end. One incident I can recall is when I was in Topeka trying to interview a state senator who asked me, “Stephanie, where are you from?” I responded truthfully – born and raised in California. The response was, “No, where are you really from?” I know I’m not the only one to hear that line, but it was a bit frustrating because it took several more exchanges for her to say, “ Okay, where are your parents from?” While in Topeka, I experienced a lot of that kind of ignorance. It was a huge learning experience because being in the Bay Area, you never encounter that.

Actually, if you remember the Matthew Shepard case – that’s when the gay 21-year old was tortured and beaten to death for his sexual orientation. Well, on the newspaper front pages across the country, you might remember graphic pictures of signs that read “God Hates F*gs.” The people behind those appalling signs were from the Westboro Baptist Church – based in Topeka. I was so scared of encountering these people and I thought, if they are a reflection of even a minority in Topeka, I’m not going! Fortunately, I learned Topekans despise that group. I covered a protest by the Westboro group once, led by the infamous Fred Phelps, in front of a theater hosting a nude play. Incredibly enough, I was left alone. Maybe they didn’t know how to react to seeing an Asian face.

Lisa: Who was your favorite person to meet and/or interview?

Stephanie: This is a two-pronged question. My favorite person to meet on the job? Senator (now President-Elect) Barack Obama. I had given up my weekends the fall quarter of my sophomore year to take a train and bus to WGN Superstation for what was advertised as a desk internship. Instead, it turned out to be the best internship I ever held because I assumed field producer responsibilities, going out with a photographer every weekend to collect “sound bites” (interviews, lines from people on camera). The first weekend I was there, I interviewed Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Not long after was Obama, who was in his senatorial run at the time. And yes, he is as charismatic as he seems on television.

Favorite person to interview – there isn’t just one. George Lopez was incredibly funny every time I interviewed him at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am Tournament. I got to talk to Luke Wilson, Kelly Slater, Kevin Costner (pictured), and Vijay Singh (a big deal for a girl who has a golf fanatic for a dad). But celebrity interviews aren’t necessarily the best. In Salinas, where I work, there is a huge problem with gang crime. Shootings happen on a routine basis; in fact, the city just tied its homicide record of 24 back in 1994. Every time this happens, another mother loses a son. Talking with those mothers breaks my heart every time, but to get a message out to the public on how to help deter that crime is priceless. It reminds me of why I do what I do. Sounds so corny, but it’s true.

Lisa: What places and events have you been able to visit through your job that you otherwise probably would never had a chance to attend?

Stephanie: We get passes to events of all kinds, from the races at Laguna Seca (Moto GP, etc.) to concerts to events like the Pro-Am. One of the things I just love about my job is how much you learn about your surroundings in a way you never, ever would off the job. I remember my friends used to ask me, “How’s Chicago?” but I could never truly answer them because Northwestern undergrad is in Evanston, a suburb just outside of it, and my peers would mostly visit Chicago tourist destinations like the Magnificent Mile (Michigan Avenue). When I did the WGN internship, I went to all these locations that I would have never gone to had it not been for the job, and through that, I learned so much about Chicago. The same applies to my current job. Now I drive around and it feels like every other block, I can say, “ I’ve done a story there.” This job both allows and forces you to visit places and talk with people you would never go to or meet, and it’s honestly one of the best parts of the whole deal.

Lisa: How do you think your personality and identity is expressed through your reporting?

Stephanie: Well, lately, I’ve been doing some investigative pieces. Hearing from parents about things that are unjustly going on in their community and how people may be taking advantage of them has really sparked that hunger in me as a journalist to get to the truth. I’ve heard of journalists getting jaded out of the ideals they used to piece together with the news industry, but I really feel I can make a difference. I am a straightforward person and hope that shows as I continue to work with these scared parents. I hope to gain their trust and show them how honest I am. Without that trust you build with your sources, you really can’t do much as a journalist.

Off camera though, I’ve explained the history of Taiwan (obviously abridged version) to countless colleagues. It helps to let them know why I am so proud to say I’m Taiwanese American ☺.

Lisa: What was your parents’ reaction when you decided to choose this career?

Stephanie: My parents were very supportive. They’ve never butted into my school or work decisions, mostly because I always put pressure on myself to get things done. I’m so appreciative of this because you always hear anecdotes about Asian parents who want their kids to choose medicine, business, law or engineering. I never, ever got that, not once. The only thing my mom ever bugged me about was wanting me to go to Berkeley so she could visit me every week.

Lisa: What advice do you have for young Taiwanese-Americans who are seeking careers (especially ones outside the stereotypical Asian-American professions like doctor, lawyer, engineer)?

Stephanie: Well, first, as a more general tip to everyone applying to or deciding which college to go to – think long term. I remember deciding between Northwestern and Berkeley. The latter would mean staying in a comfort zone, going to school there for the four years undergrad, and then applying to a graduate journalism program. If I went to Northwestern, I could skip that one year obtaining a master’s. Whatever you do though, it really doesn’t come down to the school. It comes down to your ambition because the bottom line in this business is that hard workers who have good storytelling capabilities and are able to think outside the box will go places.

To the Taiwanese-Americans seeking atypical careers – just go for it. Okay, yes, easier said than done. Be prepared to encounter hardships. Along with the rest of today’s job market, it’s more competitive than ever to break into the business. There are positions advertised as open, but most are frozen. Life truly is too short to sweat the small stuff. What I mean by that is, think about doing something that makes you happy as opposed to something your parents can brag about. Who wants to spend most of his or her life at a job feeling like a drone, shuffling paperwork at a cubicle, when what you really want to do is something on the opposite end of the spectrum?

We are lucky to be in the generation we are in. We have just made history this November 4th and we see how things are progressing. Asian American faces pop up on the tube so much more now than ever. We’re breaking into roles we never had a shot at before. Take advantage of this new chapter – follow your guts, your heart, your instincts, and just commit yourself to whatever dream that may be.

PS- Go Taiwan!

To see Stephanie in action, check out:

Lisa Chang is a current high school senior, curious for all sorts of college and career advice 🙂 Having taken college journalism classes and interned at The Economist, she is interested in many aspects of the journalism industry. She has not yet settled on a dream job, but this is now under consideration.

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