In Depth

Quake, Games Offer Opportunity in China

KTSF-TV Has Experience to Share

When early reports trickled in of a 7.9 magnitude earthquake in the Sichuan province of China on May 12, many U.S. TV stations scrambled for overseas talent to cover it.

At San Francisco’s KTSF-TV, Asian American journalist, Hong Kong native and veteran anchor Mei Ling Sze simply looked around the newsroom.

KTSF, which has served the Bay Area’s Asian American population for 32 years, first broadcast a live Chinese newscast in 1988 and now broadcasts in 10 Asian languages.

As it turns out, the unlikely combination of the Sichuan earthquake and the 2008 Beijing Olympics might give the world a new window into China. “Lately [the Chinese government] has been looking at how much they’re going to be able to control the media,” Ms. Sze said. “As part of the agreement with the IOC, they’ve had to allow reporters to roam the country, except in Tibet. In the last 20 months we’ve been to China five or six times.

“You’re not really allowed to talk to people, but we’re still able to use a lot of the images,” she added. “And we’re finding there are more people who are willing to talk than there were 20 years ago.”

Ms. Sze told the story of a young girl whose body was found recently in a river in China. After several boys were questioned and released, the official government explanation of the girl’s death was suicide, she said, but villagers were not convinced.

“The villagers believed the young men were related to the government officials,” she said, “and thousands of villagers stormed the government buildings.”

That provincial act attracted the attention of the central Chinese government, which reopened the case and even allowed the dead girl’s family to be present for the autopsy—another thing that would have been unheard of 20 years ago, Ms. Sze said.

“We spoke to some officials in Beijing two months ago,” she added, “and they said privately they felt the government was more open now to letting the world know what’s going on in China.

“The [government] had been saying they would clamp back down after the Olympics, but it seems like they can’t turn back.”

Ms. Sze said she and her staff “have talked to officials about how China was perceived by the rest of the world, and they were intrigued. They were so upset by the coverage they had been given [for the upcoming Olympics]—but then the earthquake happened and they knew they would have to let the whole world cover it.

“Officials understood they would have to get open-minded enough to let people come in, and now they can see how things outside of a controlled society work.”

Ms. Sze also contributes to KTSF’s monthly news program “Under the Same Sky,” which airs documentaries and features that are of interest to Chinese people in the U.S. and elsewhere. She has a strong background of covering human rights.

Her questions on that topic, directed to Presidents Clinton and Jiang Zemin at a press conference broadcast live worldwide, were featured on ABC’s “Nightline” and led to a televised human-rights debate between the two world leaders.

The station “already has a presence in Beijing for the upcoming Olympics,” she said, and will be sending six reporters to cover the Games. “We started our coverage in May. We followed the torch on its progress, and when there were Chinese Americans in the trials we featured them. We’ll continue our coverage there through Aug. 24.”

Although Ms. Sze is now an American citizen, “I see myself as Chinese,” she said. Starting her bilingual career in Hong Kong, she added, gave her an edge as well as insight into Asian news.

“I’m very fortunate. I feel we’re in a different league here. There’s so much talk about downsizing and corporations taking over the bottom-line issues in newsrooms, but we’ve never encountered it,” said Ms. Sze, a longtime AAJA member who has been with the station for 20 years.

The KTSF audience is made up of “a population from all over,” she said. “Whether they’re from Singapore or Taiwan or mainland China, they give us a good sense of whether we’ve been doing it right.” It helps, too, she said, that the newsroom staff is composed of the same ethnicity as the audience it serves.

“There have been other [Bay Area] Chinese-language stations to come and go,” Ms. Sze said, “with Mandarin and Cantonese newscasts, but they’ve never been able to be viable.”