Live Blogging about Health

This weekend, I’m live blogging the first seminar for California Broadcast Fellows at the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships program at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications.

That’s a lot of names, isn’t it?

It’s actually fitting; one of the biggest challenges of broadcast journalism is to take complex topics and tell compelling and often very short stories about them. You can read my posts on The Fellowship Blog at Reporting on Health, and see my tweets at @ReportingHealth. Here’s the first post:

Examining the Craft: Seminar on Broadcast Health Reporting Begins Today

In a world of sound bites, 140-character reports and information overdose on the Internet, news about health often doesn’t get all the airtime it deserves. The first session of a seminar for broadcast journalists will look at ways television, radio and multimedia journalists can boost coverage and depth in their reports.

Tonight’s keynote speech by NBC’s Robert Bazell asks the question, “Is it Possible to Cover Complex Medical Topics in Two Minutes or Less?” Through the weekend, California Broadcast Fellows will examine social media and digital resources, health reform and the black market, and what it takes to get depth of coverage in a media marketplace that demands that writers be editors and producers all at once.

Michelle Levander, director of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, says that the pressures of being in a newsroom and on deadline make it difficult for journalists to feel that they are doing their best work. Specialty topics like health often take a hit when time and resources are short. The broadcast track of the fellowship program began last year to address the particular issues of working with sound and images on tight deadlines. Broadcast journalists have to tell compelling stories and need simple ways to cover complex topics, explains Levander. It’s a tough job, especially now that the business of journalism is in such dire straits.

“In a time of cutbacks and uncertainties, one of the things that helps journalists not become demoralized is a sense of community,” Levander says. “You can’t underestimate the value of exchanges that happen in seminars like this.”

You can join the conversation online throughout the weekend by commenting on posts. I’ll be twittering at ReportingHealth; reply or tweet using the hashtag #cabroadcasthealth. You can also email your comments to me at angshah@gmail.com and I’ll include them in my live blog throughout the weekend.

my online journalism life

I started reading the introduction to The Elements of Journalism, published in June, 2006. I stopped at this paragraph:

When the flow of news is obstructed, “a darkness falls,” and anxiety grows. The world, in effect, becomes too quiet. We feel alone. John McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona, writes that in his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, what he missed most was not comfort, food, freedom, or even his family and friends. “The thing I missed most was information — free uncensored, undistorted, abundant information.”

And it occurred to me that, though I was no prisoner, I shared this feeling when I was living in Singapore. I had comforts and avenues for learning, but I missed the vibrant news cultures of Bangkok and Mumbai and even Los Angeles. Lo and behold, a few paragraphs down, the authors, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, write this:

Journalism provides something unique to a culture — independent, reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free. A journalism that is asked to provide something other than that subverts democratic culture. This is what happens when governments control the news, as in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. We’re seeing it again in places like Singapore, where news is controlled to encourage capitalism but discourage participation in public life. Something akin to this may be taking root in the United States in a more purely commercial form, as when news outlets owned by larger corporations are used to promote their conglomerate parent’s products, to engage in subtle lobbying or corporate rivalry, or are intermingled with advertising to boost profits. The issue isn’t just the loss of journalism. At stake is whether, as citizens, we have access to independent information that makes it possible for us to take part in governing ourselves.

To me, this is what is exciting and daunting about a life lived, in part, on the Internet. Those worlds of information open up, dare I say, revolutionizing how free information and conversation can be. I did go to the Zocalo talk, “Age of Rage: “Is the Internet Making Us Mean?,” which I mentioned in my last post. It turned out to be more of a discussion along the lines of, “Why are People Mean to Journalists on the Web?” To quote from an article by Andrew Sullivan in The Atlantic once more, “Writers can be sensitive, vain souls, requiring gentle nurturing from editors, and oddly susceptible to the blows delivered by reviewers. They survive, for the most part, but the thinness of their skins is legendary.” I think this explains pretty well the focus of Wednesday’s panel, where journalists were the three speakers. And it’s a topic I can sympathize with certainly, but it’s still not as interesting as a more direct conversation about the effects of cyberbullying, Internet hate campaigns and the potential neurological effects of social networking. I’m not as worried about anonymous people burning journalists in comment sections as I am about what is happening to those people who lose their inhibitions (or create new ones) as they go virtual.

Speaking of going virtual, a piece I co-authored for the Far Eastern Economic Review has just showed up as a blurb on their site. It’s subscription only though — yes, some people on the Internet do that.

Two more random links:  Zocalo does some pretty cool stuff, including giving shout-outs to really great writers. And let’s be honest, globalization and connections and entrepreneurship aside, the Internet is pretty awesome.

my online life

Next week, I’m attending a talk in Culver City. It’s one of my favorite parts of the greater Los Angeles sprawl, a no-fuss but energetic neighborhood with approachable people and good food. It represents comfort in a big city. But the talk, hosted by Zocalo Public Square, is about what is perhaps the antithesis of neighborly comforts. It asks the provocative question “Is the Internet Making Us Mean?”

Since returning from my last trip to Asia, my relationship with my laptop, my netbook and my iPhone has intesified. It’s amazing thing that a writer in Southern California can maintain close friendships with her friends in Singapore and Bangkok and Hong Kong. I’ll never regret that I can do very rich reporting on places far away because of Google Talk and Skype. As isolating as a subrurb can be, I can only imagine how much less interaction with the world I would have without social media and blogs and instant messaging.

But I also have serious reservations about my online life. Online, I am a private person and not a very patient person. Even though I spend a considerable amount of time chatting and blogging and twittering (on both the writing and reading sides), there are a lot of things that cannot happen for me in a virtual world. The Guardian reported last week that Facebook and social networking sites might alter the way the brain works. Neuroscientist Lady Greenfield (Baroness Greenfield according to the Telegraph) is calling for more investigation into the long-term consequences of living online. Indeed, there is a double effect that I’m sure many of us Facebook and Twitter and blog addicts are familiar with. We have constant interaction, “constant reassurance – that you are listened to, recognised, and important,” as the Guardian quotes Greenfield. But on the other hand, we lose depth or narrative in our relationships. Both literally and metaphorically, we diminish our two-dimensional lives. And our brains, as elastic and adaptable as they are, might be losing their capability to think deeper in terms of our relationships. If social networking and blogging might be causing these kinds of visceral changes, I can only imagine what Twitter is doing to my brain.

My editor at The China Beat sent me an article by Andew Sullivan that ran in The Atlantic last year. It’s a great explanation of its title, Why I Blog and presents some really interesting ideas about what a blog can do differently than other mediums. Sullivan writes (on page three of the online text) that a blog “renders a writer and a reader not just connected but linked in a visceral, personal way. The only term that really describes this is friendship. And it is a relatively new thing to write for thousands and thousands of friends.”

I don’t have thousands of readers, and by extension I don’t have thousands of friends, but this was a really interesting thought to me. I read EastSouthWestNorth and Traveller’s Tales. Heck, I even read DipNote — not sure that makes me friends with the Secretary of State. But even Madame Secretary takes on a new tone in the blog, with entries like “Question of the Week: What Is the Best Path Forward for Gaza?” and “A Visit to the New Forbidden City.” It’s certainly a way to create more personal, if carefully managed, relationships between citizens their government leaders.

All of this, I think, will make next week’s talk very interesting. If this is what friendship has become — communing on a blog with the Secretary of State, keeping abreast of status updates on Facebook, physical changes in our brains that make long-term attention much more difficult than before — than certainly, the Internet has made us mean. It’s a good thing I’m getting off the Internet at least once to discuss it.

my desk

(My desk in California — it’s a pretty mobile existence, which means I take my desk everywhere.)

good feelings and the Olympics

After visiting grand Shanghai and glittering Chongqing, it was in a taxi in Dongguan that my view of China took a small, but important shift. I was traveling with a friend to the South China Mall, down the main road that stretches from the city’s train station all the way out to the suburbs. It was Olympics time, but we were a far cry from Beijing’s impressive Bird’s Nest.

The train station was bustling with passengers, laborers and managers who clogged up nearby cafes and bars, eating cost-efficient meals before getting on buses to their offices or factories or wholesale shops. We were trying to get to a magical place, though, a place hailed as the world’s largest shopping mall. But we knew something was not quite right as the crowds thinned out and the buildings got taller but the streets got emptier. The downtown megacity was full of half-empty towers and ambitious but abandoned construction projects for new skyscrapers. The media, even China’s state-media Xinhua, was already reporting on falling property prices and demand well before the Olympics, and  in Dongguan, it was obvious, even to our taxi driver, that things were not as great as so many people thought they were.

At a University of Southern California conference on Friday, scholars gave more academic perspectives on China’s Olympics. Anthropologist Susan Brownell discussed China’s goals as hosts. Contrary to popular belief, she said, most of their efforts were turned toward their domestic audience. They did not have a “master plan to promote a positive image of China to the outside world.” She outlines this argument in a post on The China Beat and in her book, Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China.

China promised to host a “People’s Olympics,” but can that kind of agenda survive, or even have any effect on the post-Olympics ground reality? Stanley Rosen raised the question, citing the warnings of state-run weekly magazine Outlook. Because of rising unemployment, reporter Huang Huo wrote that China is entering a “peak period for mass incidents.” Rosen, a USC professor of political science, pointed out significant, and emotional, upcoming anniversaries; May 4 will mark the 90 year anniversary of Beijing student protests that sparked the May Fourth Movement for populism and June 4 will mark the 20 year anniversary of the violent put-down of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Economist Jeffrey Owen stressed that the Olympics did not provide direct financial benefit to Beijing or China. With a $40 billion price tag, including Olympics and Olympics-related costs, the gains come more in the form of less quantifiable “legacy effects,” the good feelings, China brand building, and the international education received by volunteers, students and residents of Beijing. Certainly, Chinese residents of the second-tier cities, like Chongqing and Shenzen, felt pride for the country’s successes, even though they were far-removed from the glamor and cameras. But still, they, like me and my traveling companion, became very tired of the Game’s soundtrack.

 

Last week’s conference, hosted by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the Center for International Studies and the US-China Institute, was filled with interesting food for thought. But it was hard to get the repetetive refrains Beijing Huan Ying Ni out of my head every time I thought about my time in China. A friend in Chongqing told me the young people there were alternately pulling their hair out and making lewd parodies of the song, just to make its constant presence bearable. So while Premeir Wen Jiabao does his best to spread hope for China’s near future on his global financial goodwill tour, it’s still difficult to figure out if the Beijing Olympics gave China any significant leg up, if it was, as the conference asked, a “Public Diplomacy Triumph or Public Relations Spectacle?”

So what happened when we finally got to the world’s biggest mall? My friend, Anka Lee, wrote about it for NBC in San Francisco. But I think you can guess that it was not as triumphant as Beijng’s fantastic opening ceremonies.

Diamond Bar evacuations from smoke, fire

The Country Estates, a gated community about 1 mile up the road from our house has been evacuated. There is an evacuation center set up at my alma mater, Diamond Bar High School on Pathfinder Road. We feel pretty safe here on the southwest side now, though we are ready to pack up and go if necessary. A lot of neighbors have already packed their cars just in case.

The air quality is abysmal though. When you step outside it feels a bit like a huge barbeque gone wrong and it’s not clear if the heat you’re feeling is just from the California sun, or if it’s coming from Tonner Canyon over the hill. The side streets have a flurry of activity, but the freeways are eerie and empty. Businesses are open still and life is going on, just with some apprehension. Fire fighting planes and helicopters have been flying low over our neighborhood since earlier this morning, making a massive effort to protect the city. I read later on L.A. Now that 15 helicopters and 10 air tankers are in the fight.

If you watch the local news, they are trying to see Diamond Bar from helicopters, but the smoke is so thick you really can’t see anything, particularly arund The Country. I have not seen or heard of any actual flare ups in the city, however. Here’s what it looks like behind my house.

Diamond Bar smoke

embers in the hills

It is a bit surreal when your drive home consists of barricades and smoke and embers. I left Long Beach before 5 p.m. today and got home to Diamond Bar just before 8 p.m. This is usually a 30 minute drive.

But I am very lucky that I have a home to go to. I have seen California wildfires in the past, but I have never seen a blaze from the hills near my house as I have today. The Yorba Linda fire stretches for longer than my eye could go and there are small blazes in many parts of Brea. Here in Diamond Bar, we have a canyon between us and the fires that will hopefully protect our city, but I saw a small stray blaze near Tonner Canyon Road being put out by a police officer on the way home.

The immediacy of the information being put out is very helpful though. In addition to local radio, Twitter feeds are offering very detailed information about hot spots, traffic and general information. (Twitter is a service that allows people to text message or post online short statements or news, a kind of microblog that can be read like an RSS feed.) The Los Angeles Fire Department created a hashtag, #LAFIRE, and there is a similar one for Orange County, #ocfire. I’ve been particularly impressed with the California Public Utilities Commissioner Rachelle Chong and her dedication to twittering the news. To get a feel for how people are reacting, I suggest Monitter (pictured below). I searched for tweets within 10 miles of Brea, CA and used the search terms “fire,” “evacuation,” and “canyon.”

The Orange County Register provides a good map of the flames. Our house sits right on the border of Diamond Bar, Rowland Heights and Brea. Things are ok now, aside from dismal air quality and the ash falling out of the sky. I hope it stays that way, and that, for our Brea neighbors, these fires come under control.

monitter-fires.jpg

Election day pre-game

When I lived in Singapore I watched the presidential debates and conventions online. I used to sit in our living room, lounging on the rattan sofa in my Thai fishing pants, and enjoying the wifi generously shared by the fellows downstairs. Sometimes on the Sundays that I stayed in town I would sit there for hours, unaware of time going by, taking in my Americanness and trying to stay connected to home once in a while.

My roommate, who still lives in the flat, would go out in the morning — for muy thai or ballet lessons because she is a very active person in that way — and come back in the afternoon only to find me sitting the same place, mugs and plates for snacks piling up around me. And I would absently make a comment — “That was a really solid speech,” or “I don’t think this is true,” or “What do you think of their approach to Asia?” — to which she would blankly stare or just continue with her activities.

Sometimes though, when I wasn’t spacing out, we had really interesting conversations. It’s really interesting to think about American politics from international perspectives. My old roommate is from a town outside of Hiroshima, Japan. Politics in Japan are very different, she told me. She was baffled at Americans and the way they watch politicians and listen to them speak.

Japan has had four prime ministers in the last three years; after the charistmatic Junichiro Koizumi’s almost six years in office (which is three terms in Japan), Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda took the post and then resigned under political pressure before their terms ended. The current Prime Minister, Taro Aso, just postponed until January a general election in which he and his party would have to defend their position. Add to this the financial crisis, and it seems like a good time for political news in Japan.

But young people in Japan and the mass media don’t give politicians the airtime that American politicians get here. They are not seen as the people who directly affect lives, and since Koizumi, they are not particularly interesting to watch. The dynamism and hustle of this year’s political race in America was something new to my roommate.

So we watched the conventions together, testing my ability to explain some of the more absurd elements American politics and punditry and my roommate’s ability to follow some pretty complex English.

Now that it’s election day, I wonder what she would think of the campaigning and media duke-outs — even I am a bit in awe of the Superbowl-like energy, even though I am really excited (I voted!). I’ve never seen CNN get so excited about a multi-touch screen (they need more applications for that, so its not John King doing the same demonstration over and over again), and The New York Times plug its own tech-saavy so heavily. Even the Japanese press are getting excited.

So here’s my election night game-plan: 4pm, CNN and local news on television. Online, I’ll be following the Los Angeles Times for my local fix (see this interesting graphic on the historic fundraising for Proposition 8 campaigns), The New York Times and their ticker that shows when major news outlets call races, and some papers in Asia. Many are relying on wire service reports or The New York Times, but I’m finding interesting real-time perspectives so far in the Straits Times of Singapore, the Jakarta Post in Indonesia, and The Times of India. In social media, I’m looking at Global Voices’ special election section and Twitter’s election ticker.

those crazy artists (or, why I went to Riverside)

It’s a lot like the Oregon Trail, driving out to Riverside. The road gets emptier as you go further along 60 East. There are warning signs: GUSTY WINDS AHEAD. You hope your passenger doesn’t die of cholera. At one point, the trail divides. You can choose the 15 to Barstow, and if you keep going you’d get to Las Vegas.

dirtyhands.jpg

But we stayed the course. All for the sake of a documentary about David Choe, a Southern California graffiti-artist-turned-hispter-phenomenon. If you’re from Los Angeles you might recognize his work even if you don’t know who he is. On the street, he’s famous for spray painting huge whales saying funny things on freeway retaining walls. His gallery showings include paintings made with soy sauce and urine from his three-month stint in a Japanese prison, an ice cream shop gallery of his portraits, and a $2.5 million sell-out show in London.

The film, Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe, is a cut of 7 years of footage of Choe doing crazy things (traveling around the Congo with a child’s drumset on his back), breaking the law (grand theft for stealing groceries from a frat house), and talking about his life (a bevy psychological problems and addictions, the desire to make his girlfriend happy and God).

But the fundamental question I walked away with (from the film and the arduous journey into the armpit of Southern California): does great art or leadership or work require a streak of crazy? Is it necessary to travel down that road, where personal relationships and mental health sometimes suffer, to have singular experiences?

Choe himself wrestles with this problem in the film. When he tries to take prescribed drugs for his obsessive compulsive disorder and clinical depression (among other diagnoses), his art suffers. His inhibition — that manic feeling that makes his imaginative and often disturbing art so interesting to look at — was reigned in. He stopped taking the medication.

For those of us who keep or inhibitions in tact, like a security blanket that keeps us safe, Choe’s art and life can give us a taste of what goes on in a mind that does anything it wants. And it can inspire us to do the same, to some degree at least.

emerging in California

flight to Los Angeles

After just over a week in semi-hiding, I am proud to say that I’m back in California. It’s been one year and one week of traveling and teaching and writing (and eating) in Asia and it feels good to back where the avocados are cheap and the toilet paper is two-ply, even in public restrooms.

And lucky for me, there are no Korea-withdrawals. Diamond Bar, California (where I went to high school) has two great, very large Korean markets. And just down the road I had a fruity drink and som tum and soft rock with a friend to fulfill my southeast Asia craving.

My semi-hiding week was for family and writing. I’ve found a surprisingly good work space in my sister/grandmother’s room and I’m starting to get back into the routine of writing everyday. A group of reviews from the week I spent in Busan just ran in Asia Pacific Arts, including one of the Malaysian drama/comedy/musical Sell Out! That shout out was just for you, Joon Han.

random updates: writing about Singapore, teaching in Cambodia and watching movies in Korea

I had a little bit of an epiphany about my writing life in Singapore a while ago. And I promised I would write more about the country where I live. So, a few months later, I am true to my word and am posting for Global Voices. Will work my way up to longer, reported writing.

I’m also not giving up just yet on my goal to get at least a few of my students reading more. I’m writing for them at npReads. Students, colleagues — if you’re reading this, I’d love for you to contribute and build the site after my fellowship ends.

Next next weekend, I’ll be attending a bar camp in Phnom Phen. I’d like to teach a news writing topic — perhaps about upsidedown triangles or a spiced up lead drill of some sort. Any suggestions or requests? Mostly, I am very excited to meet new people and get to know Cambodia a bit.

In the first week of October, I’ll be off to the Pusan Internation Film Festival with my friend and trusted film maniac Brian Hu. I’ll take some photos and do some writing and try to see as many beautiful people as possible. And get a taste for Korea.

Then it’s off to Los Angeles, home of tacos and burritos and In ‘n Out burgers. And my family too.