HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, May 3 (Reporting ASEAN) – In a series of labour-themed stories, Vietnam’s popular daily newspaper ‘Tuoi Tre’ reported in January 2016 about the main shortcomings of the country’s workforce – poor grasp of the English language, subpar professional skills and a lack of experience working in foreign environments.
Coming on the heels of the Dec. 31, 2015 launch of the ASEAN Community, which aims for economic integration, the timing was right. So was the topic – employment – which is a key concern for the younger generation.
“We have to choose aspects of the ASEAN Community that Vietnamese readers really care about such as the labour market, because the Vietnamese population is very young and we warn them that if they don’t work hard at their jobs, then the others from (other) ASEAN countries will come and take their jobs,” said Nguyen Thanh Liem, head of international affairs and managing editor of the Vietnamese-language ‘Tuoi Tre’, in an interview.
Besides the labour series, the paper, whose readership of 300,000 makes it the highest-circulation daily, has a section called ‘Lively ASEAN’ that comes out every Wednesday and is devoted to mostly wire stories focusing on the region.
Finding topics that resonate with Vietnam’s media consumers is a challenge that Liem and other editors have to face in their coverage of ASEAN-related news. For many audiences, ASEAN conjures up an image of stuffy and serious meetings featuring staid politicians. This distance from everyday issues often makes it harder to sell the reporting and analyses of interesting, practical facets relating to the ties that bond 620 million people across 10 member countries.
In Vietnam, whose economy grew by 6.7 percent in 2015, editors are latching onto commerce as an entry point into ASEAN stories. “We are looking into business issues and political problems that each member may be facing. It’s not just about introducing a pagoda or a place of interest,” said Nguyen Thanh Hoa, news centre director of Ho Chi Minh Television.
Vietnam joined ASEAN as its seventh member in July 1995. Out of its cohort of CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) countries from the Mekong Region that have since joined the association, the Communist country is often regarded as the most developed.
Hoa’s department, which consists of 140 reporters, produces ‘ASEAN Vision’, which are 10-minute episodes discussing problems the Community faces in terms of the labour force, cultural exchange and integration.
Media outlets have also tapped into the Vietnamese public’s curiosity about its neighbours. “Vietnamese readers are very interested in ASEAN issues because we have a sense of competition with (other) ASEAN countries — we want to know how Singapore did it, how Singapore grew so strong but why we can’t grow as strong as Singapore, for example,” explained Nguyen Thanh Liem.
Yet for Nguyen Quang Sang, chief of local representative office of state-run Vietnam Television (VTV), the reason for his station’s ASEAN offering is simple: “Most people don’t know much about the region.” A 30-minute news programme, ‘ASEAN Window’, looks at economic, political and financial news in the region and began covering integration stories three months before the launch of the ASEAN Community.
CHALLENGES IN STORYTELLING
Other hurdles remain in the coverage of ASEAN stories from Vietnam, chiefly originating in the newsroom itself. Reporting is often limited to a select few who can speak English, understand the nuances of the region and take a regional perspective, resulting in limited stories that often inadequately showcase the depth and explain the complexities of Southeast Asia.
“Most importantly, the reporting skill of the ASEAN television reporters is not at the same level. They are not on the same page (as other countries),” said Hoa.
Budget constraints, time pressures and insufficient resources also affect the ability of Vietnamese media companies to cover and produce original stories in a region as geographically and culturally diverse as Southeast Asia. “If you report about an issue in another country, you have to spend a lot of time, a lot of money and things like that and it takes more energy, a lot of effort. I think they (journalists) are not interested in that,” admitted Hoa.
Interestingly, the ASEAN way of consensus may likewise have stifled journalistic endeavours in Vietnam. “It makes it hard to cover a story because they (reporters) have connections they are afraid of covering the stories about… We are afraid of hurting the connections that we have between countries,” reasoned Liem.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE
But not all media organisations are struggling to voice the ASEAN story.
’Hoa Hoc Tro’, Vietnam’s most popular magazine among teenagers with a weekly circulation of 160,000, has deftly managed to convey stories on the ASEAN Community and the integration process to its young readers.
Besides the ‘Knocking on the Future’ column that helps prepare teenagers for a future in the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), one of the pillars of the ASEAN Community, the magazine also provides practical advice on education and employment opportunities in the region.
“When we talk about the AEC, we usually go to a conference and wear formal clothes and talk about very serious problems. It’s very hard for journalists to translate the big problems to small ideas I can convey to teenagers or ordinary people,” said 19-year-old editor Doan Phuong Linh in a discussion with ‘Reporting ASEAN’ here.
Instead, the magazine employs methods that its young readers can easily relate to when discussing ASEAN-related issues. “We don’t cover the ASEAN Community like other big organisations, we focus on lifestyle,” senior editor Le Nguyen Thuy Trang said. “The biggest difference is that we don’t roughly talk about AEC, we talk via entertainment channels – we use films and movie stars to explain ideas about the AEC,” she pointed out.
While purists may argue about the glamorous approach to a serious topic like ASEAN, the number of letters the magazine receives from students seeking advice on careers and studies relating to the AEC’s advent is testament to an effective strategy.
Be it via news bulletins, feature story techniques or newspaper supplements, there are stories about ASEAN waiting to be told. Media organisations in Vietnam will have to forge their own paths to deliver the message to readers, viewers and listeners.
Even as its media outlets toward younger readers create new ways of engaging their audiences, the more traditional methods used by news organizations like VTV continue. Unlike most TV stations in other ASEAN countries, VTV is still lucky to have the resources and political mandate to have its own foreign correspondents in selected cities overseas, including in ASEAN countries like Vietnam, Laos and Singapore.
As VTV’s Nguyen Quang Sang said: “Vietnamese audiences can have their own way to decide (on news items), they have freedom.” (END/Reporting ASEAN)