Leading Women: Kristie Lu Stout on being a journalist in the time of #MeToo

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The CNN International anchor shares her thoughts on how newsrooms and organizations can ensure a gender-equal and diverse workplace. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When Kristie Lu Stout arrived in Beijing in the ‘90s, one of her first impressions was seeing a horse-drawn cart on a highway next to the bus she was on. “I just thought, ‘What’s going on here? This is a place going through such dynamic change. I wanted to know more about this place,” she says.

Having graduated at Stanford University with degrees in journalism, her career as a journalist in the United States could have easily unravelled itself, but Stout’s hankering for telling underreported stories prevailed.

“I remember telling myself, ‘I’d much rather be in a cubicle working for a media company in China than in a cubicle in Silicon Valley,’” she says. “I felt there were stories to be told there, and I was driven to go out there.”

She has since been living in Asia, and in 2001, she joined CNN International in Hong Kong as a multi-platform journalist, and eventually became the organization’s news anchor and correspondent. A host of the daily news show, “News Stream,” Stout has won the Best Current Affairs Presenter and Best News Presenter awards at the Asian Television Awards, on top of “News Stream” also being awarded Best News Program.

Stout was in the Philippines to give a talk at CNN Philippines’ “Leading Women to #PressForProgress” summit, where she explored the theme of “Sisterhood,” of having people around you to help you. She believes that we may only be able to press for progress when every individual — no matter the age, gender, race, religion, or belief — values the importance of gender equality.

She says, “Gender equality is about fairness. We want to be in a more colorful and diverse world. If everyone has a chance to be more literate, bring more income ...  it’s better for everyone.” 

Photo-5 (12).jpg "When the #MeToo movement broke, I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is fantastic. We need to talk about this.' Because it's not normal, it's not fair, it's not something that we should just say, 'Oh this is the real world,'" Stout says. Photo by JL JAVIER

CNN Philippines Life talked to Stout to learn more about the plight of women in journalism and what organizations can do to ensure an inclusive and diverse workplace. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

There is a Poynter article that says that a majority of journalism students are females, but once they leave university, they go into different fields or don’t advance their careers as journalists. The article also says that there is still a blatant lack of female journalists in newsrooms. What can you say about this?

This is the year that we're talking about the #MeToo movement and when the #MeToo story broke last year, it made me think about harassment in the workplace. And it brought back memories of, and this was before CNN when I was working as a freelance reporter, and when you have an interview with someone and that person says, “Oh so this is a date.” And you have to say, “No, this is not a date, I'm trying to interview you.”

Or there was one other instance when, as a young reporter, someone told me, “I have something to show you to my hotel room.” And I followed him up to his hotel room, and it was only before I entered his room, when I stopped myself, and I had to rely to my intuition, my instinct, that said don't go in and I said sorry I had to go away.

I had to give up that source for a news story because he had other intentions. And I think that is a weight and burden that a lot of young female reporters have to deal with that is absolutely unnecessary and unfair. So when the #MeToo movement broke, I thought, “Oh my goodness, this is fantastic. We need to talk about this.” Because it's not normal, it's not fair, it's not something that we should just say, “Oh this is the real world.” And it's something that gets in the way of young women to be able to nurture their careers.

And once there is fair working environment for everyone, then I think, more women would feel, “Oh finally I can focus on my work and not be afraid on what could happen to me.”

Photo-17 (8).jpg “Gender equality is about fairness. We want to be in a more colorful and diverse world. If everyone has a chance to be more literate, bring more income ...  it’s better for everyone,” says Stout. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA 

I’ve also read that another issue in newsrooms is the lack of females in management positions. A Nieman Lab report highlights how female managers are only in countries where journalism is not taken seriously. What do you think can be done to counter this?

I think you have to fight the stereotype. There can be a stereotype about journalists in a given place, a stereotype about broadcast journalists. Perhaps in some places, they consider broadcast journalists not serious journalists but something akin to tabloid reporters or entertainment reporters. There's also a stereotype against female broadcast journalists, or “lady anchors.” And over the years, I've gotten the question, [and] I still get the question: Do you do your own research? Do you know how to write?

I've been working for CNN for 17 years and I have the title anchor/correspondent in my card. CNN International is an organization where we don't have anchors who mime the news and just read the teleprompter. You really have to be able to think and read and research independently or the network's credibility is at risk. I think the best thing to do is to acknowledge the stereotype but just focus on the craft at hand and the task at hand, and not let that stereotype bear you down.

Has your being mixed race and female been a cause of discrimination as well? How have you navigated around this?

I identify as Chinese-American and it's funny because when you grow up mixed race, you are ambiguous. And sometimes people do, going back to the issue of stereotypes and labels, they like to put a label on you and who they think you are. And when you grow and when you mature, you have to be able to determine and showcase to the world and sort of lay your stake down and say this is who I am.

I identify as this, I have an expertise in this, my value system is this. I think also being mixed race and having multiple cultures is just having a more diverse background. Diversity is only a good thing.

I also noticed that you’re very active on social media. You regularly post and you constantly engage with your audience. Why is this important for you?

I think a couple of years ago I would have said social media is important because that's where I can engage with my audience, that's where I can cultivate contacts. That's where I can find out the stories that matter to people. Now, I find myself sharing stories, for example on Instagram, because I'm afraid that there are certain important stories that are not getting out to people.

Once there is fair working environment for everyone, then I think, more women would feel, “Oh finally I can focus on my work and not be afraid on what could happen to me.”

CNN International is watched by hundreds and millions of households all over the world. We're in [over] 200 different countries and territories, but there are young people who usually rely on social media more, learning about human trafficking or the conflict with North Korea, or the Rohingya crisis. And so, I'm thinking, “Do you know what, I need to take that piece that we did for T.V. and I have to repackage that for social media,” hoping that that younger demographic, or maybe that demographic that may not be able to watch CNN in a regular basis, may be able to say, “Yeah I'm also wondering why, why would Kim Jong Un offer talks to Donald Trump?”

What [is] motivating me more these days is this feeling of this story is just so important that we need to get it out there to as many people as possible.

Have you seen that social media, or the online landscape, has been better for female journalists, and women in general?

Maybe on hand, absolutely yes, because you have some really incredible news outlets like Teen Vogue online or even Jezebel focusing on women's issues and millennial women's issues, and that's really incredible to watch and to see. But then, on the flip side, you also have the danger of trolling, and online harassment, and comments board being taken over by extremely negative harassing comments. So there are pluses and minuses.

What can newsrooms or any organization for that matter do to ensure that they champion inclusivity and diversity?

To be diverse, you have to hire diverse, right? It can be all levels of diversity — male, female, sexual orientation, race, even age. And to have an open mind, and also experiences too. You know, sometimes, you can find incredible talent that may not come from a place that you would expect, right? Some of the most brilliant people who I've worked with never finished university, for example. So [organizations should] not let certain biases get in the way of hiring positions.