Who's in the AAJA-Asia Spotlight?

Craig Gima!  As an assistant city editor and reporter at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, he believes that in a globalized world you can find local news stories anywhere. Craig has searched out and reported on stories with a Hawaii angle from Bhutan to Banda Aceh.


He has reported from Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, India, Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam, so far.


He will be presented with an AAJA 2009 National Journalism Award in the Asian American Pacific Islander Issues Online Reporting category at the national convention in Boston. His reporting on “Sithan’s Journey” took him twice to Cambodia to tell the story of a girl from a small village outside of Siem Reap who traveled to Honolulu for surgery that enabled her to walk for the first time.

Also at the convention, Craig will be a panelist on a “Local News, Global News” panel coordinated by AAJA Asia Chapter National Board Representative Tomoko Hosaka. Craig and the other panelists will share tips on thinking globally to find local news stories. The panel is on Thursday, Aug. 13 at 1:45 p.m.

Craig gives us a preview of the panel and how reporters from any newspaper or television station, no matter how small, can travel to Asia and report on stories.

Q 1:  Craig, tell us how a US based reporter like yourself managed to land a project in Asia.

A: My interest and ability to travel to Asia for stories started with getting a Jefferson Fellowship from the East West Center in the fall of 2001. We left for Japan on the morning the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan. Former Hawaii governor George Ariyoshi was on the same plane on a goodwill mission to re-build Japanese tourism after the Sept. 11th attacks. I went up to the first class cabin, interviewed him, talked to tourists at Narita Airport about their fears of traveling and turned in a story from the airport. That was my first foreign dateline.

In preparing for the East-West Center fellowship, I started calling around looking for stories I could do in Asia and I’ve kept a file of stories to do in other countries ever since.

When the 2004 tsunami happened, I was the reporter picked to cover it because of connections I had made in Indonesia and Sri Lanka because of the fellowship. And when Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle traveled to the Philippines in 2006 to cover the centennial of Filipino immigration to Hawaii, I already had a proposal ready with stories to do in the Philippines.

The story on Sithan Liam in Cambodia came about because I had always wanted to visit Angkor Wat. I went to Siem Reap on vacation in 2006 and a contact I had made during the tsunami coverage told me about a girl that his charity was bringing to Honolulu for surgery that would enable her to walk for the first time. Her village was about half-way between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. My editor approved paying for my expenses to travel to Sithan’s village from Siem Reap and for my hotel and not to count to work days against my vacation days. I extended my trip for a couple of days to do the story.

The first story from Cambodia helped raise money to bring Sithan to Hawaii and helped me make contacts in the local Cambodian-American community, which was involved in hosting her stay.

When Sithan arrived in Honolulu, a photographer and I discussed doing a project on her stay. Because of privacy laws, it’s very difficult to get access inside a hospital, but Sithan’s mother had signed a waiver allowing us to tell her story and her host family also agreed to let us follow her during her stay.

Sithan’s return to Cambodia coincided with a trip I was planning to Bangkok for an East West Center journalism conference last year. My editor agreed to pay for my airfare to and from Cambodia from Bangkok and for my expenses in following her in Cambodia and I again extended my vacation to tell the story of her return home and of her mother’s reaction to seeing her daughter walk for the very first time.

Q 2: Can you give us some highlights of your experiences reporting in Cambodia?  Perhaps you can tell us about some of the most rewarding, exciting, and/or challenging moments.

A:  Because of the type of reporting I was doing, this last trip to Cambodia was about observing, taking lots of notes and pictures, and trying not to influence the events as they unfolded.

I spent about four days following Sithan and her mother as they reunited in Phnom Penh and traveled by bus to Siem Reap, where her sponsors had arranged for her to stay and get follow-up care and schooling.

The key moment was the reunion with her mother and her mother’s reaction when she saw Sithan walk into her arms for the first time. That was most challenging part of the journey, mainly because I was a one-man band, multi-media journalist. I had to get into position, frame my video, take still pictures, and observe and take notes as an emotional scene unfolds in seconds. It just wasn’t possible to do everything. My video of the reunion isn’t quite framed properly and I didn’t get close-up shots on video or with my still camera of the actual moment. Luckily, you could still see the emotion in their faces after the initial reunion, so I was still able to get good pictures.

This kind of project reporting also means a lot of waiting around and watching for scenes that help you tell the story. So the highlight was on the bus trip to Siem Reap. We were at a rest stop and some beggars positioned themselves to ask for money as people walked back onto the bus. One of the beggars had an amputated leg, something that almost happened to Sithan when she was injured and something she had to consider as doctors decided how to treat her injury in Honolulu. When she passed him, she stopped and gave the beggar money. It became a key point in the print narrative and one of the things that people who read the story bring up when they talk to me about it.

I’ve had other highlights and challenges in Asia.

I traveled to Burma with a team of doctors from Hawaii just after the country re-opened after the regime’s crackdown on Buddhist monks. I really wanted to visit the monasteries that the government had raided and explore what happened and what had happened since the crackdown. But I was worried about getting arrested or kicked out of the country and not being able to cover the story of the Hawaii doctors. In the end, I stuck with the local news story because that’s the story that I had pitched to get a fellowship to pay for my travel, and that’s the story I was expected to return with. I’m still not sure if I made the right call.

In covering the tsunami aftermath in Banda Aceh, I remember sharing a hospital room floor with five Indonesian doctors and two workers from a Western aid agency and all of us trying to get to sleep first so that we wouldn’t be kept awake by each other’s snoring.

I remember eating braised ox tongue and pig cheeks in the Philippines, snake in Taiwan, stir-fried frog with basil and chilies in Thailand, shark fin and papaya soup in China, and fugu in Japan. And, as Travel Channel host Anthony Bourdain says, “I’m hungry for more.”

Q 3:  You were given an award for your work in Cambodia, in part because you utilized a multimedia platform. Can you tell us more about how you did this?

A: I originally started my career in television so I have experience with video, although my editing was with tape, rather than digital editing machines. I actually worked for about 15 years in television stations in Sacramento, San Francisco and Honolulu. But I have been in print for the last 11 years, so my skills are a bit rusty. But I do understand the basics of shooting and writing for television.

I brought a video camera along on my first trip to Cambodia to cover Sithan, because I thought it would make for a good television story and our television station partner, KITV, agreed to edit and broadcast my stories to air on their newscast and promote the Star-Bulletin’s print story.

I think multi-media is the future and being able to demonstrate the ability to shoot, write and edit a television story also, I think, makes me more marketable should I need to find another job in the future.

My weakness is not having enough familiarity with web design. So I was dependent on other people and what I am told is the rigid formula of our Clickability software in creating the webpages for the stories. I had other ideas to make the stories more accessible, user-friendly and interactive, but couldn’t incorporate them into the final product.

The other challenge with multi-media reporting is finding the time to get everything done. Doing project reporting in a small paper like the Star-Bulletin requires weeks, if not months, of trying to find time to research, report and write the print story in between covering other assignments. Adding video and photos, more than doubles the time and effort required. A lot of weekends went into the project.

Q 4:  Do you have any tips for journalists based in the US, who aspire to take their work overseas?

A: If you can find good stories, the chance to cover them will come.

I’ve traveled on four fellowships, as a military embed with the Air Force to cover the Indian Ocean tsunami, on vacation, and pitched stories to my editor.

In my experience, the best local beats to find overseas stories are business, health, higher education, the military and government.

Mayors and governors are traveling all the time. Sometimes there’s not much news on the trip, but if you can find other stories besides the official visit, your editor might go for it. Think about how much different the Gov. Mark Sanford story might have been if there had been a local reporter along for his trip to South America.

Check in with the local Rotary Club. They’re usually doing something overseas or can put you in touch with Rotary clubs in other cities.

Doctors also like to travel and most research hospitals and medical schools have overseas projects.

Universities and colleges are also doing lots of stuff in other countries. And its not just research. Public and private universities are always looking to expand with overseas campuses and exchanges.

Business stories are obvious. It’s almost impossible not to do business without looking at overseas markets or suppliers.

The military is also a good source of stories. National Guard units are being deployed overseas for missions and training all the time, and not just to Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also being sent for humanitarian missions, check especially for any medical, engineering and civil affairs units.

If your paper or television station can’t fund you’re trip, there are a number of fellowships available – including the East West Center,  the International Center for Journalists, the Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting, and the International Reporting Project.

I am working on more tips and a more complete list of fellowships for handouts, that I will give out at the “Global News, Local News” reporting panel on Thursday, Aug. 13 at 1:45 p.m. at the AAJA convention in Boston.