By MORGAN WEIDNER —
Veteran journalist David Barboza once threatened to quit the New York Times if the newspaper didn’t send him to China. The paper posted him to Shanghai, and it worked out well – nine years later, he won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, and shared a second Pulitzer for the Times for explanatory reporting.
Barboza originally gained an interest in both journalism and East Asia through a college class at Boston University on American reporting and coverage of the Chinese Revolution and the Vietnam War. In 1997, he turned this interest into a career and began working for the New York Times as a staff writer.
A big opportunity arose in 2001. The New York Times had an opening in China, and Barboza was immediately interested. The editors allowed him to visit for a week. “During that first trip I realized this was the place I wanted to live and work,” Barboza said. “I told the editors that I was eager to go and even willing to leave the paper and move there myself.”
While he enjoyed his new life immensely, there were many challenges he faced as well. “In my first couple of years I had a translator for everything and I felt really uncomfortable,” he said.
In addition to the language barrier there were also many cultural barriers. Barboza recalled one occasion when his translator “told me she felt something was wrong during the interview. It wasn’t what was said, but either the way some answers were given or body language or other cultural clues that something strange was happening and we ought to leave.” Shortly afterward, things became tense and Barboza ended the interview. These were not the type of signs he could pick up as a foreigner, he said.
A big transition for Barboza was the process he had to follow to set up interviews. “You can’t just call up someone and expect them to talk to you freely,” he explained. “You often have to go through a connection.” He stressed the importance of building relationships. “You need to get to know people, have dinner with them, and get them to feel comfortable and trust you. And then, maybe they’ll start to tell you things. The process is a lot different, a lot harder.”
Safety is often a prime concern for Americans working abroad. This was also a concern for Barboza, particularly when working on more sensitive stories. He noted that he was often quite worried about his wife, a Chinese citizen, because the “Chinese judicial system is hideous.”
Because of his work and investigations, he has received many threats during his time as a journalist, both domestic and abroad. “It’s just something you have to accept if you’re going to do investigative reporting,” he said. When asked if these experiences impact his work, he explained that he does not let it. “If you’re trained as a good journalist, you’re constantly thinking about ethics and responsibility and professionalism.”
Barboza’s return to Shanghai after his CMC visit will mark the beginning of his final few weeks of his journey in China. Before he departed for his flight, he offered a few pieces of advice and thoughts for budding reporters. “If you’re interested in journalism you’re not getting into journalism for the money,” he said. “You’re getting into it because you’re really interested in learning about the world and travelling.
“If you’re really passionate and can learn from the best and become one of the best, this is the best time to become a journalist.”
(Written by Morgan Weidner, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Oct. 2, 2015)