Mind Fix Smog

Beyond the Apocalypse

China's Generation Green

The International Reporting Program is a yearlong course offered to students at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism. This is a first-person narrative from a student about their experience of covering a challenging subject abroad and what it brought to their life and career as a result of being in the IRP program.

A story by Katelyn Verstraten

Lesson one: How to wear a smog mask

Dec. 2013 — Shanghai, People’s Republic of China

Downtown Shanghai at dusk, and the air is thick with smog. The setting sun is an ominous golden orb, smoldering above the downtown skyscrapers.

I am standing outside of Prada and Gucci, photographing ‘conspicuous consumerism’ with my UBC classmate Jimmy Thomson. Jimmy has just had an unfortunate realization.

“We needed to put filters in our smog masks?” Jimmy asks. There’s a hint of panic in his voice.

Cherry, the Chinese Shantou University journalism student working with us, laughs. “Yes, or it’s just a piece of cloth around your face.”

I laugh too, but I’m a bit concerned. When we purchased our industrial-strength smog masks at Canadian Tire the weekend before we left, it had all seemed like a joke.

Standing in the middle of the choking smog, it doesn’t seem so funny anymore.

It’s December 2013, and I’m travelling to China for three weeks as one of 10 Fellows in UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism International Reporting Program (IRP). The goal of IRP: tell ‘untold’ stories from around the world. This year’s theme: the emerging environmental movement in China.

I’m partnered with both Jimmy and fellow classmate Aurora Tejeida. Our mentor is UBC Journalism professor David Rummel, formerly of The New York Times. Together with Cherry we form team ‘Safe Food’.

We prepared extensively for our trip in the months before we left — but only after seeing the smog do I understand why it’s so important that we tell these stories.

This is the first time I think the world could actually end. That we could actually pollute the planet so much it simply can’t sustain itself.

This is the first time I think the world could actually end. That we could actually pollute the planet so much it simply can’t sustain itself.

Picture the foggiest Vancouver day and multiply it by 10. And this is not fog — it’s PM2.5 smog filled with deadly particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, bits of pollution so small they work their way into the lungs and never come out.

The elastic straps of my smog mask chafe against my cheeks. I can feel beads of condensation coating the inside of my mask. Smog smells like burning plastic, smoky, tangy. I taste it in my mouth, thick and viscous. My eyes burn.

It’s the funny thing about reporting here. My first thought isn’t ‘Am I getting the material I need?’ but ‘I sure hope my smog mask is working!’

Suddenly a cell phone beeps. It’s a text from Dave, who is shooting video with Aurora nearby: “PM 2.5 levels are off the records. It’s not safe. Come inside now!”

Jimmy and I look at each other. We start packing up the tripods and camera gear.

This really is apocalyptic smog.

  • ‘Apocalyptic’ Shanghai smog

  • Professor David and student Jimmy take in Shanghai’s skyline — and off the record smog

  • The setting sun is an ominous golden orb, smoldering above the downtown skyscrapers

  • Taking in Shanghai — and off the record smog


From the Director

Peter Klein, Associate Professor and Director of UBC’s International Reporting Program, and Director, Graduate School of Journalism (2011–2015)

In 2009, with a generous donation from Mindset Foundation, we created the International Reporting Program to train the next generation of global journalists — allowing them the opportunity to spend time in the field, experiment with new approaches to global reporting and produce major projects from around the world.

Our media partners have included The Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, The New York Times, CBC, Global, PBS Frontline, Al Jazeera and CBS News, and past projects have won a long list of awards, including an Emmy, an Edward R. Murrow Award, a Sigma Chi Delta Award, a Webby Honor and numerous top prizes at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.

But our bigger reward is having impact on global conversations. Our multimedia Pain Project is used by global health professionals to advocate for palliative care worldwide. Our documentary about the hazards of illegal electronic waste exports has been used by policymakers in Washington to establish strict new rules about e-waste export. And just six days after our investigation about the murder of a Brazilian Indigenous leader ran in The New York Times, more than a dozen suspects were arrested.

We are now growing the IRP into an ambitious non-profit Global Reporting Centre, the first organization in Canada dedicated to advancing global reporting and producing major projects on under-covered stories throughout the globe.”

From the Instructor

An inside look at teaching in the International Reporting Program with David Rummel, Assistant Professor, UBC Graduate School of Journalism.

Lesson 2: In The Beginning We Didn’t Know Much

Fall 2013 — Vancouver, Canada

Team Safe Food ‘in the field’ in Shanghai. From left Katelyn, Jimmy, Aurora, and Cherry.
Photo: David Rummel

Before we left for China, our UBC professors put us through international reporting boot camp.

“You’re about to become quasi-experts on China and the environment,” Professor Peter Klein, tells us on the first day of class. “At the end of this course, you are going to be so sick of this topic!”

We spend hundreds of hours researching and brainstorming our theme. We stay up until 2 a.m. interviewing sources in China. We produce massive literature reviews, have weekly guest lectures and are inundated with papers and readings.

We receive extra instruction in audio, video, interviewing techniques, as well as Chinese culture. We debate the ethics of international reporting and the purpose of the stories we are going to tell.

Our class doesn’t want to produce yet more ‘doom and gloom’ Chinese environment stories. By focusing on China’s inspiring young environmental activists, we want to not only show the environmental challenges China faces, but also the potential solutions and glimmers of hope.

By focusing on China’s inspiring young environmental activists, we want to not only show the environmental challenges China faces, but also the potential solutions and glimmers of hope.

Amongst these activists are: a team of young wildlife photographers documenting the endangered Yunnan snub-nosed monkey; a young man forgoing a high-paying city job to work for an NGO promoting farming without the use of toxic agro-chemicals; a documentary filmmaker fighting against China’s waste situation; and a student determined to bring attention to the litany of deadly food scandals.

Our class is also partnering with a team of young female Chinese journalists from Shantou University. These talented women bring a level of accuracy and authenticity to our project that would be hard to achieve otherwise. One Shantou student will work with each of our IRP groups; Cherry is my team’s partner.

Jimmy, Aurora and I don’t know that by forming a team, we are deciding to spend the majority of the next eight months together. We couldn’t envision the sheer size and scale of China or the amazing people we would meet. We didn’t know that our class would win a Gold 2014 Canadian Online Publishing Award for Best Interactive Story — or that people around the world will read our work.

We also didn’t know Mandarin or Cantonese, although we would admittedly never develop a firm grasp of either language.

In the beginning, we don’t know any of this. We’re just three UBC Masters of Journalism students about to get on a plane to China.

Lesson 3: How (Not) To Eat A Chicken’s Foot

Dec. 2013 — Sichuan province, China

  • Beautiful Anlong Village
    Photo: David Rummel

  • Farmer Cheng Wang distributes organic produce to a customer in the city

  • Farmer Cheng Wang and his toddler son working on their ecological farm

  • Cherry shows team Safe Food how to eat a chicken’s foot

I’m given my first chicken foot while hunched in the back of an organic-produce delivery van, bumping down a dirt road in rural Sichuan province. It’s 3 a.m. and sprigs of cilantro and parsley are poking me in the face.

“Farmer Wang says this is for you,” says Cherry, passing me a small, colorful package. “It’s really delicious!”

“Thanks,” I say, holding it cautiously. “Can you tell him ‘thanks’?” I placed the foot next to the camera and audio recorder on my lap.

Our team is staying at Anlong Village, on the farm of an elderly couple we are instructed to call ‘Grandma’ and ‘Grandpa’. There is no running water or heat and our beds are slats of wood with a blanket mattress.

Three meals a day come out of their rustic kitchen, incredible organic meals with ingredients I have never seen before. Before we go to bed at night, Grandma heats water in a pot hanging over the fire so we can clean our faces and feet.

Reporting on the organic farm, Jimmy, Aurora and I have somehow learned to read each other’s minds. Someone is always behind a camera while another captures audio, the third jumping into the role of the interviewer. Dave lets us take control of our project, stepping in occasionally with guidance.

Today, Cherry and I are accompanying Farmer Cheng Wang on a produce delivery to the nearby city of Chengdu. I will ask the questions and take photographs. Cherry will interview and translate.

“No journalist has ever come on one of these fourteen-hour deliveries — too early!”

Farmer Wang is one of nine farmers from Anlong Village who provide organic produce to around 200 city families searching for a safe alternative to chemically grown produce and the gamut of recent food scandals. Twice a week, he drives 40 kilometres to Chengdu to deliver his vegetables. The city is huge and the journey takes 14 hours, due to traffic congestion and mediocre roads.

“No journalist has ever come on one of these fourteen-hour deliveries — too early,” Farmer Wang says to Cherry with a laugh, as she translates for me.

I laugh too and contemplate eating the chicken foot, but the toenails are a bit off-putting. I put it in my camera bag, making a mental note to give it to my younger sister for Christmas. For now, there’s work to be done.

Lesson 4: How To Be A Journalist

May 2014 — Toronto, Canada

It’s May 2014. I’m sitting in the newsroom of The Toronto Star newspaper when our investigative piece China’s Generation Green is published in a four-page folio section of the paper and an online multimedia site.

“It’s my class! It’s our project!” I shout excitedly. I want to run and jump and scream. After almost a year of intense research, after so many sleepless nights, after three weeks in China, after countless edits and revisions and drafts and more edits and more revisions, we’re finally published!

It’s a slow-news Saturday, and the Star’s massive newsroom is empty. A kind city editor humours me by flipping through the pages of our folio spread; another jumps up and down with me a few times.

Eventually it’s time to get back to work.

Sitting at my desk in the newsroom of the Star, I scrolled though our multimedia website a second time, resisting the urge to call Aurora. Or Jimmy. Or Dave. We had actually done it. We had told the stories that mattered, the stories we set out to tell, the stories we believed the world needed to hear. It feels surreal.

Interviewing Chinese environmentalist Ming Jiu Li on the farm in Anlong Village
Photo: David Rummel

We had told the stories that mattered, the stories we set out to tell, the stories we believed the world needed to hear. It feels surreal.

E-mails begin flooding into my Toronto Star inbox about China’s Generation Green.

“I didn’t know China even had an environmental movement!” one reader writes. “Thank you for showing Canadians a glimmer of hope.”

“Great work! So accurate and well reported,” says one university professor. “I’ll post this on my course website for my students to check out too!”

“The inspirational stories of these young Chinese environmentalists has made me want to take action in my own country,” writes an American reader. “The fate of the world is in all of our hands.”

To call the UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism International Reporting Program a ‘hands on’ course would be an understatement. We may have started this class as students but by the end, we are journalists.

“The experience not only made me a better journalist but it also made me a better researcher,” says Aurora. “Reporting on stories as important as the environment in China definitely made me think a lot about what we choose to see and why we choose to see it.”

At the time of writing, Jimmy is currently on a boat in Antarctica and unavailable for comment but if he was here, I’m sure he would agree. The three of us are still close, forever bonded by an experience that no one else can fully understand.

Maybe our careers have just begun. Maybe we can’t change the world with our work. But UBC’s International Reporting Program showed us that we have the power to affect things on a bigger scale than we ever thought possible.

Seeing China’s Generation Green published in The Toronto Star was ‘surreal’
Katelyn Verstraten

About the Author

Katelyn Verstraten is a Canadian journalist specializing in health and science reporting. Her journalistic skills have been honed in three of Canada’s top newsrooms — The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and The Vancouver Sun. Katelyn holds a Masters of Journalism from the UBC Graduate School of Journalism (2014) and a Honours Bachelor degree in Psychology from Queen’s University (2011). She is also a science writer for the Terry Fox Research Institute and NeuroDevNet, a Canadian Network of Centres of Excellence. From organic farms in China to interviewing leading cancer researchers across the country, science and medical writing is her passion.

Story Credits

Author: Katelyn Verstraten, alumna of the UBC School of Journalism

Guest author: Peter Klein, Director and Associate Professor, Graduate School of Journalism

Masthead photo credit: Jimmy Thomson

Thank you: Aurora Tejeida, David Rummel, Jimmy Thomson, Cherry, and all IRP classmates and professors.

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Michael Kam, Web Developer/Coordinator; Adrian Liem, Senior Web Coordinator; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer. Additional research and copywriting — David Leidl, Copy Editor and Researcher.

Published: April 2015