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Spotlight Iowa City: Years of reporting dangerously

BY REGINA ZILBERMINTS | OCTOBER 13, 2009 7:20 AM

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Lisa Weaver’s third-floor office is still bare.

She only began teaching journalism at the UI in August. She moved to Iowa City in June. Before that it was Pittsburgh.

Yet even before that it was China, Indonesia, East Timor, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Weaver spent most of her extensive journalism career in China, where she went in 1987. Now, she’s using that experience in her class on international journalism.

“When I first went to China, I just went to China,” the 45-year-old said and laughed. “But after I’d been there a couple years, I started thinking about getting involved [in reporting].”

The list of major world events Weaver has covered spans decades and countries. But, as the tall and thin woman said, she didn’t intend to go into broadcast journalism.

Though the Los Angeles native majored in journalism and Chinese at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she went to China only to teach English.

She ended up covering the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 — which started after the death of the pro-democractic Hu Yaobang and whom protesters wanted to mourn — an event with far-reaching ramifications.

“Tiananmen Square was incredible. I was lucky such a dramatic event sparked my interest,” Weaver said. “It began a lifelong interest and involvement with China.”

It’s this type of experience husband and UI political-science Professor Wenfang Tang said his wife needs to recall more.

“I try to remind her, this is what you’ve done, and this is such valuable experience, and you should use it.”

More than 10 years after the deadly protest, Weaver was the sole correspondent reporting with a live video-phone feed from China on the Hainan spy-plane incident during the standoff between China and the United States over the mid-air crash between the nations’ planes. That’s when authorities arrested her on live television.

But Weaver shrugs it off.

“That’s nothing. That just happens,” she said, noting that she’s been detained in China “lots of times.”

Between these two crucial incidents, Weaver covered the fall of the dictator Suharto in Indonesia and the violence after independence in East Timor, two incredibly dangerous situations.

“I was sitting in my apartment watching the movie The Year of Living Dangerously,” Weaver said, describing the time she was deciding whether to go to Indonesia. “Not long after, I found myself — literally — living dangerously.”

That’s how most of her travels were. She had no solid plans. But she was willing to go.

And that’s the direction international journalism is taking, she tells her students. Though many believe they have to work their way up the traditional ladder at a newspaper or broadcast station before being sent abroad, media outlets will often hire people who are already living in the region and speak the language — even if they have little journalism experience.

UI journalism Professor Judy Polumbaum said Weaver’s experience benefits her students.

“The more students learn about perspectives from other cultures, it helps them understand not only that culture, but their own and themselves,” she said.


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