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The Guardian’s Tania Branigan reveals what it takes to be an international reporter, how digital technology has affected her job and how exploring the local culture can acclimate foreign journalists.

A foreign correspondent for The Guardian, Tania Branigan has reported from Beijing since 2008. Branigan has covered the Sichuan earthquake and written about blind activist Chan Guangcheng, among an array of other subjects. To her, Beijing reminds her strongly of her hometown, a former industrial city in Northern England that was well-known for its smog. She spoke to Global Journalist via email about what it takes to be a- good journalist in the digital age, the tension between microbloggers and the Chinese government and how leaving the newsroom can make a better reporter.

Global Journalist: What specifically about China do you write about, and what topics are you especially interested in?

Tania Branigan:* I write about everything: politics, the economy, international relations, crime, social changes, the arts and even sports. I have interviewed artists, yak herders, officials, scientists, farmers, factory workers, paleontologists and so on.

I am particularly interested in some of the big shifts and how those play out at the level of individuals. For example, China is aging rapidly, but that huge demographic shift is going to affect both the country as a whole, which will have a smaller workforce supporting more old people, and individuals, who will face tough choices about whether they can or want to live up to the traditional pattern of filial relationships.

GJ: What major challenges have surfaced during your work?

Branigan: The biggest one, by far, is protecting sources. We are not at risk; they are. Secondly, officials are very cautious about speaking to us. It is often hard to get the official viewpoint or to get access to officials and that’s frustrating. It’s important that people understand what the government is doing and thinking and why it acts as it does.

GJ: How has the rise of social media and microblogs, such as Weibo, changed the how you report in China?

Branigan: Microblogs have opened up a really fascinating space for discussion and debate and sharing ideas in China. Although they are heavily censored, they are much less so than the other forms of media. In many ways, they are more important than Twitter is in the West. We are now starting to learn about stories and issues from microblog posts. They can be a great source of stories, sometimes directly, or sometimes because they feed the Chinese media, and we then pick up news from there.

It is important to say that microbloggers are not representative of the Chinese population as a whole. They tend to be more urban and educated. But even so, microblogs can offer us a sense of the currents of public opinion. They can help us to understand what is important to users and what Chinese people care about. Incidentally, I think officials also find this useful. Social media also encourages feedback, as users engage with us directly and question things we have written or suggest new avenues for exploration. And they can help to amplify our work or help us reach new audiences when people share our articles. All that said, the government is now working hard to rein in the microblogs. It is fascinating to see how that battle between government aims, commercial impulses and the interests of microbloggers will play out.

GJ: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned during your time as a reporter in China?

Branigan: When you are reporting overseas, you have to be even more aware than usual that there are unknown unknowns. You may not fully understand the context of what is happening or what people are saying. You need to prepare well, be sensitive to mood and ask people when you suspect there is something you are missing.

As a reporter, you need to prepare, but then try to put your preconceptions aside. It is very easy to make assumptions, but the joy of reporting is being surprised and discovering that the story is different and more complex (and often more interesting) than the one you were anticipating.

Finally, journalism is about life. Hard work is important but if you are at your desk or doing interviews 24-hours a day, seven days a week, you are missing the point. Getting out of the office is even more important when you’re living in another country. Chat to people, go to museums, read novels, eat new food, walk down a street you’ve never been down before. All of that will make you a better reporter.

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