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Verve People
March 14, 2017

Meet Award-winning Journalist Kristie Lu Stout

Text by Nittal Chandarana

The CNN anchor and correspondent talks about moving to Beijing, interviewing powerful personalities and the impact of digital media

The CNN anchor and correspondent personifies the term ‘global citizen’. Born in Philadelphia and brought up in California, Kristie Lu Stout made the bold decision to migrate to Beijing in a bid to reclaim her Chinese roots. Today, she calls Hong Kong home, where she lives with husband Seung Chong and daughter Arabella. One of the premier chroniclers of our time, she currently hosts the show News Stream. On a visit to Bengaluru for the CNN Asia Business Forum 2017, where she discussed the role of technology and digitisation in India’s burgeoning news sector, Lu Stout talks about her career, life choices, and the trends that govern new media.

What prompted your move to China?
“I spoke fluent English but had a deep sense of shame that I couldn’t talk to my grandparents in Mandarin Chinese. I moved because I wanted to continue to learn my native language. My professors thought I was crazy. My mother couldn’t understand why I would choose to go back, especially since our ancestors worked hard to leave the country. Now, people feel that I made the right decision and was able to predict the rise of China! But I only followed my heart. I wanted to go to a place where I could find adventure, challenge myself, and report and encounter new things.”

You have a European-American father and a Taiwanese mother. How did your ethnicity impact your early years in the USA?
“On my first day of elementary school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a fellow student ridiculed me by making slanting eye gestures with his hands. I didn’t understand it, but my mother knew exactly what was going on. A week later, a special assembly was announced, where she was in front, dressed in her beautiful cheongsam dress with Chinese food, scrolls, calligraphy and books, giving a presentation on what it meant to be Chinese. No one bothered me about it again and I respect my mother very much for that. I learnt that when you encounter racism, sometimes the best solution is not lashing out, but doing something constructive.”

How different was it living in Beijing?
“I relish challenges. I remember being one of the few Apple PowerBook users in the late 1990s, and trying to log on to the internet. I found a couple of students who used Apple and we proceeded to troubleshoot our way through it. That was something I’d never have to deal with in Silicon Valley. The ’90s were incredible years to be in China. That was the time when students still rode bicycles from one corner of the city to another. It was also before smartphones. There was a lot of curiosity about the place in the outside world and vice versa. On a personal level, I was leaving my family and that was very, very tough. Going back to China has brought me closer to my mother. As an American, sometimes it takes travelling or living abroad to better appreciate what you miss back at home.”

Which place have you connected with the most?
“I always say home is where my immediate family and my books are, which would be Hong Kong. But then if I try to ask myself the morbid question of where I’d like my ashes scattered, I’d say America. I think my identity comes from northern California. I still feel fundamentally American.”

Why did you shift focus from print to television journalism?
“When I joined CNN in 2001, I was hired as a multi-platform journalist. I was contributing to both, the website and the television channel, which was very cutting-edge back then. I had to do the job of two individuals but I was young and full of energy, and took up the challenge. Even now, I consider myself a multi-platform journalist.”

How have trends in technology and digital media impacted the field of reporting?
“If you look at what is probably the biggest change in the industry in the last 15 years, it is the rise of social media. Ninety per cent of CNN’s user engagement comes from Facebook. Social media is fantastic to engage with the audience and to extend our reporting, but the challenge is that a number of people are using only this as their window to the world. There are so many trends which I don’t like. Online trolling, digital harassment, fake news, the hijacking of digital personalities — all of these represent the dark side of technology. It is a powerful tool but it has a dark side, and it is up to us to call it out.”

How do you prepare yourself when interviewing powerful personalities like Elon Musk or Annie Leibovitz?
“There are two things. You cannot be intimidated by their high profile or their success. You have to be well-prepared, well-read and willing to ask questions that your audience wants to know the answers to. And also, all these individuals are powerful because they perform some sort of public service. They have put themselves out there and offered something that people want. They appreciate when you focus on that. I hate the celebrity interviews where they talk about the fame, whereas the focus should be on how they changed the world.”

What defines your approach as a journalist?
“I think it’s to do with focusing on the truth and accuracy in a politically- charged environment, and upholding people and companies in positions of power accountable. It’s the purpose of a journalist to see trends in the distance, whether it is threats that are looming or opportunities that are out there. That’s the reason why I’m in Bengaluru — to look for the next big thing happening here. The purpose of a journalist is to not just be reactive but also to anticipate where events might be unfolding.”

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