Dressed comfortably in a sweater and jeans with her brown hair falling naturally to her shoulders, Barbara Demick hardly stands out among coffee-sipping customers at Starbucks opposite the Jianguomen Diplomatic Residence Compound, where she works as chief of the Los Angeles Times' Beijing bureau.
"I moved overseas in 1993 for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I was in Eastern Europe right after the Berlin Wall fell. A few years later, I was covering mostly [the former] Yugoslavia," she said.
Demick speaks of her reporting experience as calmly as if recalling a supermarket shopping list. Having spent nearly 20 years as a foreign correspondent, she has built her career on reporting sensitive subjects, such as defectors from North Korea, which inspired her 2009 book Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea.
After her posting in Eastern Europe, Demick was stationed to the Middle East for the Inquirer in 1997. In 2001, she switched to the Times, and became the Times' first bureau chief in South Korea in 2001. Six years later, she moved to China to head the newspaper's Beijing bureau.
Demick says throughout her career she has strived to report stories in a fair and balanced manner that dispels stereotypes of bias in Western journalism. She was crowned winner of the 2012 Shorenstein Journalism Award in November, an accolade she earned for her "innovative and extraordinarily sensitive reporting on Northeast Asia over the past decade."
North Korean defectors
Demick headed the Times' Seoul bureau when former US President George W. Bush delivered his 2002 State of the Union address that noted the "axis of evil," of which North Korea was included. Demick grew increasingly interested in North Korea, even though it was sealed off to American journalists.
"If you tell journalists they can't go somewhere, they go crazy," she noted.
Demick based Nothing to Envy on the experiences of North Korean defectors. Through the eyes of six protagonists, readers learn of their workload, famine, as well as romance and leisure. One of the characters even presented her happiest memory: walking under Japanese maple and gingko trees on a moonlit night as a teenager.
Demick was determined to share stories that weren't all doom and gloom. "I wanted [to write about] the whole human experience; not just about starvation or prison camps, but the happiness too," she said.
Through church groups and support networks, she tracked down defectors to interview. The overall impression she received from defectors was not one of bitterness toward their homeland, but rather unease at abandonment.
"Defectors live with a lot of guilt, thinking they are responsible for the sufferings of their family. Even if they did nothing wrong, they all have that guilt," said Demick, who won the 2010 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for her book.
Demick conducted around 100 interviews over a couple of years. She would meet defectors for lunch, a movie and then another lunch the following week to learn their stories.
"Gradually, the stories unfolded," she said. "For example, the older woman in the book, Mrs Song, I knew her for maybe two years before she told me how her son had died from starvation."
China beyond stereotypes
The hustle and bustle of Beijing might be where the Times' bureau is based, but Demick prefers reporting from rural China and interviewing ordinary people.
"I try to get American readers to identify with what I write about," she said. "It's the North Korean approach; I want [readers] to understand how similar people are."
Demick acknowledges foreign readers often shape their views on China through the reportage of correspondents in the country.
"When you are writing stories, you are always looking for a good guy and a bad guy as if it's a Hollywood blockbuster," Demick said. "But usually it's more complicated than that. For a news story, it's hard to say this victim is not so innocent and this culprit isn't that guilty."
For a child trafficking story she wrote in 2009, Demick went to Southwest China's Guizhou Province to interview parents of baby girls abducted and sold.
Afterwards, the publicity bureau of the local government found out and invited Demick to dinner, trying to prevent her hearing what they feared were lopsided accounts from people criticizing the government.
"It was sort of revealing because the stories in the foreign press that came out were just about these evil and corrupt people who were stealing babies and selling them everywhere," Demick said. "I think they were wrong. [The government officials] actually thought they were doing the right thing."
Demick then did a follow-up to the story and interviewed a woman who was recently released from prison for child trafficking. The woman collected abandoned baby girls from the street and sold them to orphanages, but she didn't think what she was doing was wrong because she was taking babies off the street.
"It was also much different than what one might think," Demick said.
Obstacles in reporting
As a Western reporter in China, Demick finds ordinary people are happy to talk to her. By contrast, the government can be unnecessarily elusive at times, she said, noting as a journalist she has to find ways to persevere to carry out her watchdog role.
"Tibetan rioters really did a lot of bad things," Demick said, referring to the 2008 incident in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. "But when the riots started, we weren't allowed to go to Tibet, and [the government] wasn't giving us any information," she said. "At the beginning, much of the information [reported by the Western media] came from Tibetan exile groups in Dharamsala."
Demick based her stories on the incident on conversations she had with a colleague in Tibet, although this was hindered when communications were cut. She also visited an ethnic Tibetan township in Qinghai Province to seek deeper perspective.
"If [the government] had let the story be told, it would have been more critical of the rioters," she said.
Another case took place earlier this year. Demick went to the village in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province where Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China, spent time as a youth during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
But thugs patrolled roads leading into the village, she said. Demick and her assistant arranged for a local driver, who happened to have his grandson in the car, to take them in. Using the grandson in the front seat to create a diversion, Demick managed to sneak into the village.
But once Demick started interviewing villagers, she found all they had to say about Xi was praise. The thugs' presence was unwarranted, it seemed.
Demick thinks there's a misperception that Western journalists are intentionally picking faults with China, but in fact, the American newspapers write bad news about the US government as well.
"It's not the journalists' role to praise the government," she explained, "We are trained to be watchdogs."