How I did it: reporting a story in Vietnam

In 2007, I received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to fund a reporting trip to Vietnam. I wanted to write about the long-term effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and I'd tracked down what I thought was a compelling story about an environmental remediation project in Vietnam's central highlands. There was just one problem — the story would require me to travel to a remote part of Vietnam and the cost made the story seem cost-prohibitive to otherwise enthusiastic editors.

On a friend's advice, I applied for a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center. The grant application process was simple and straightforward and I received a prompt reply from the Pulitzer Center's executive director, Jon Sawyer.

After several in-depth discussions and some back and forth about my budget for the trip, Jon granted me the official approval and I began planning the trip. The two trickiest parts of the preparation process were getting journalist visas and hiring fixers. I'd heard of other journalists going into Vietnam on a regular tourist visa, but that seemed like a bad idea, given that the Pulitzer Center was sending video producer George Lerner with me to produce a segment for PBS's program, Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria. It would be difficult to hide our journalistic intentions as we traveled around Vietnam with a video camera. Other journos have been kicked out of the country for practicing journalism without the proper visa, and we didn't want to risk it.

The process of obtaining the journalist visa was like trying to secure an interview with a top government official — multiple phone calls, lots of paperwork, and one official passing us off to another — but eventually my visa came through, just hours before my flight. I thought I was starting the process early, but it turned out it was just barely early enough.

Using contacts from an Asian-American journalists' group, George found us fixers for the various portions of our journey. Our fixer in the north was a Vietnamese journalist who had trained in the U.S. and had excellent English skills and a solid grasp of our mission. She met us in Hanoi and arranged our hotels, drivers and intra-country travel.

Our fixers also served as our translators (for obvious reasons, it's a bad idea to rely on your government minder for translation). Without a reliable, trustworthy translator, I would have been unable to report the story. Even with good translators, the reporting process proved frustrating at times.

Translation doubled the time required for each interview and created a long lag between the question and answer, which severely reduced the interviews' spontaneity and introduced a sense of bureaucracy. The need for translation required my interview questions to be concise and direct and frequently I found myself aggravated by the need to wait minutes to find out what my interview subject was saying. This problem was especially acute at times when an interview subject became emotional and I wanted to react, but did so awkwardly because I didn't exactly know what he or she was saying.

I was grateful that George taped all of these interviews, as it gave us an opportunity to go back later and double-check translations and to flesh out word-for-word translations of important segments of an interview, instead of relying on the accurate but less-nuanced translations on the ground. (Remember that scene in the movie "Lost in Translation" where Bill Murray's character, who's acting in a whiskey commercial, receives several minutes worth of instructions from an angry director and his translator tells him this tirade means something like, "look at the camera?" There were a few moments like that.)

In some cases, we had two different translators interpret sections of interview tape just to make sure we were getting an accurate translation. This work could be tedious at times, but it was essential to making sure we got the story right.

I ended up writing a piece for the New York Times science section, and George produced two short videos based on my reporting, the Foreign Exchange piece and a video that accompanied my New York Times story on the paper's website.

The Pulitzer Center has been an active supporter of the project from the start. They've used their contacts to arrange numerous opportunities for me to speak about my Vietnam reporting at various universities and at special events. The Pulitzer Center also does educational outreach and as a result of these efforts, a social justice class at Georgetown University used my project in the curriculum.

I'm grateful to the Pulitzer Center for their support and encourage other writers to look for grants to make their dream reporting projects possible. In this time of declining budgets, organizations like the Pulitzer Center and the International Reporting Project are more important than ever.

Christie Aschwanden

Christie Aschwanden is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She is a contributing editor for Runner's World and her work has appeared in more than 50 other publications, including the New York Times, Reader's Digest, Men's Journal, Health, New Scientist, High Country News, Cell, and O, the Oprah Magazine.

July 28, 2009

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