Media Chat with Zoua Vang

Zoua Vang put a Hmong face on the news in a good way and not as a topic for a news story.

For about a decade, she stood in front of the news camera as a broadcast journalist to tell stories about the Hmong community and to help the Hmong people understand how to interact with the media.

She’s carried a deep sense of responsibility to tell all her stories accurately and positively in order to shine a positive light on Hmong culture. And others in the community have put that responsibility on her shoulders as well.

Her pride in being Hmong is the reason she kept her Hmong name as a reporter, the reason she insisted on having a Hmong wedding ceremony even though her husband isn’t Hmong and the reason she joined and documented the bus trip to Sacramento as a supporter for General Vang Pao in September.

“If you’re not out there to accurately portray or tell the stories of your community someone else will and there isn’t a guarantee they’re always going to get those stories right,” Vang says about reporting.

Her work at KSEE Channel 24 in Fresno earned her two Associated Press Awards and a Best of the West award. She is also recognized as the first Hmong television news reporter in the United States.

Although no longer a broadcast journalist today, she continues to educate the community about the media in a new way. She is now the communications director at First 5 Fresno, a public organization created to enhance the lives of children from birth through age 5.

“Being in news, I saw how people who have access to public relations firms know how to pitch their stories,” says Vang, 32. “So I thought…I have great skills here, but I can take this and kind of help people to advocate for stories to get on the news and how it gets covered and educating folks how to better tell their stories.”

The Media Bug
Vang first appeared in front of the camera when she was invited onto Ben H. Vue’s “Hmong Today,” television show on KNXT Channel 49 to talk about how a young girl straddles being Hmong and growing up in America while being successful in school.

Vang and her family were resettled in Mobile, Ala. in 1977. Three years later, the family moved to Fresno and lived in the housing projects near the fairgrounds.

She attended Winchell Elementary School and graduated valedictorian from Edison High School. That year, she received a scholarship to study education in college with plans to eventually become a school counselor.

After appearing on Vue’s show, Hmong parents called in asking for her to come back on as a role model for other Hmong girls in the community. Vue invited Vang back as co-host.

She entered her freshman year at California State University, Fresno undeclared and unsure of what she really wanted to do. But the experience of being on television lingered with her.

“I said, ‘Wow, could I really do this,'” says Vang, a Rodman Scholar at Fresno State. “You look around and see there’s no Hmong person on TV, so maybe it’s not for me. I remember being really frustrated.”

But journalism professors at Fresno State encouraged Vang to pursue her dreams and she went for it. With no journalism training, she connected with a professor who helped her get a night news writing internship at KMPH Channel 26.

That summer, Vang’s grandfather died forcing her to move to Minnesota to live with her parents. The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities made an exception and allowed Vang to start school that fall. She worked full-time and took 20 credits and more a semester double majoring in history and broadcast journalism so that she would graduate on time.

Working in Media
Vang’s first big story came during senior year at age 20 when she was interning at KSTP Channel 5 in Minnesota.

Twenty-four-year-old Khoua Her had just strangled her six children to death in a St. Paul public housing complex and the news managers were discussing the story. Vang interrupted, gave her two-sense and they asked her if she wanted the story.

She ended up getting an exclusive interview with the woman’s husband who was hiding out in a nearby home, but not until after explaining to him that he could get into a lot of trouble for speaking to her.

“I’m Hmong first,” Vang said. “I think when you’re a Hmong person, you can’t take advantage of people and not feel bad about it.”

She pulled him aside and asked him if he was sure he wanted to be interviewed because it wasn’t just talking Hmong person to Hmong person. Anything he said was going to be broadcast all over.

“This was my way to make sure he knew what he was getting into,” Vang says.

After that summer, the station created a “reporter in training” position for Vang convincing her not to take a weekend reporting job in Eau Claire, Wis. When she graduated, the station hired her on full-time.

In 1999, Vang left her contract a year early and came to KSEE in Fresno to see how she could influence and work on stories about the Hmong community.

Some of the stories she covered included an in depth look at the life of a Hmong strawberry farmer, the Mongolian Boy Society gang rape trial and the suicide of a young Fresno High School couple who drank silver cleaning solution.

“As a journalist, you have to be objective. You have to be fair,” Vang said. “My experience is because I am Hmong, I can do a much better job than anybody else can….being Hmong gives me more context and allows me to cover things more fairly.”

But perhaps the most memorable and proudest of Vang’s work was her half-hour special in 2001 called “Trail of Tears” in which she documented the Hmong journey from Thailand to the U.S. using her own family’s story.

“It was a deliberate piece and it was kind of scary to do because it was a focus on my family,” Vang said.

But exposing her family and pitching the special to her news director at the time was worth it.

“It’s being used still in a lot of classrooms throughout Fresno Unified, it’s at the county library, the classes at the university are using it to teach about Hmong history,” Vang said.

The Next Step
After five years working at KSEE and airing “Trail of Tears,” Vang finally felt like she had done it all.

By then, the media industry was changing. She didn’t get to write as much as she wanted to or work on the in depth reporting that she loved.

In 2004, Vang left television and got a job working on the other side of communications doing public relations work for First 5 Fresno.

She now oversees radio and television commercials for the agency, handles its media campaigns and works on the group’s public policy and advocacy programs.

“It was a good opportunity for me to learn a new skill, but also to put the skills that I have to good use because we deal with a lot of nonprofits and teaching them how to better advocate for their children and services,” Vang said.

And the career change helped her personally too. She had no time to date while in news, but since then, she got married, had two children and earned her master’s degree.

She still serves on a number of boards in the community such as the Channel 30 Advisory Committee, the Stone Soup Advisory Committee, the advisory committee for journalism at Fresno City College where she will also be teaching mass communications next semester.

Vang admits that journalism is a challenging field requiring reporters to have a certain toughness to them. It’s sad not seeing more Hmong people going into the field, she says.

“It’s also an opportunity for someone to come in and there’s that spot waiting for them,” Vang said.

Other notable names in the media include Vang’s younger sister, Susie Pakoua Vang, who was a reporter at The Fresno Bee until recently when she left to pursue a degree in law.

Another relative, Doualy Xaykaothao is a radio reporter for National Public Radio. She is based in Seoul, South Korea.

“I think the more people we can get, the more the community will get behind you if you (report) responsibly,” Vang said. “If not done appropriately you can end up hurting them more than helping them.”

Hmong and the Media
As a reporter, Vang helped to educate many of her sources about their rights when dealing with the media.

The media can be very helpful, but people have a right to invite them in or keep them out, she says.

No one can force anyone to go on air for a story, but they can shoot video of anyone standing on public property.

“It’s not because the media is evil,” Vang says. “It’s because our people don’t have the tools or feel empowered enough to speak up.”

The media in fact has helped the Hmong community connect especially through the Hmong radio. The community knew the charges against General Vang Pao were dropped in mid-September because they heard it on the radio, Vang says.

She admits that she is concerned, skeptical and cautious of the media herself. Her advice to the Hmong community is to engage with the media, but know what you’re getting into because a statement can be taken out of context at any time.

“I think its being smart enough to assess the situation,” Vang says. “The media can be a very good thing if you know how to engage appropriately.”

Vang believes that every Hmong person can do their part to encourage positive coverage of the community simply by speaking up. “Write letters of complaint to the media such as The Fresno Bee for their negative coverage or write letters commending them for great coverage,” she says.

“Don’t run away from the media if they are looking for thoughts from the public about social problems or how the president is doing.”

“We need to represent so that when they see Asian faces on television, it’s not because we’re killing each other, but so (people) can see that we’re articulate,” Vang says. “You can change the way people view us in so many different ways.”