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Losing Ground: Investigating Cultural Climate Change with Ye Zhu and Hal Bernton

One of the most important international powers taking on new approaches to combat climate change is China; yes, China. The series Losing Ground is an investigation into America and China’s efforts in this direction and the effects on the world as a result. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Hal Bernton conducted this year-long investigative journalism series working with multimedia production specialist Ye Zhu. These two professionals from two very different countries led the way in seeking out the impact, positive and negative, of these two superpowers. Losing Ground: The Struggle to Reduce Carbon Emissions investigated the challenges faced by both China and the U.S., the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, to combat global climate change. It included reporting from the front lines of China’s changing energy industry. Released over the course of three days from May 3 to May 5, 2014 on the front page of the official website of The Seattle Times, the three-part series was also shared by other news outlet such as the Huffington Post.

The individuals behind making Losing Ground are indicative of the people of both cultures who believe in pursuing the truth for a better world. Hal Bernton’s work as a part of the Seattle Times team received Pulitzer Prize awards in both 1989 and 2015. As a Pulitzer finalist in 2003 for “The Terrorist Within” and recipient of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for national defense reporting (2013), Mr. Bernton has established himself as one of the premier investigative journalists in America. Ye Zhu is from China’s Hunan Province. She left her work at international advertising agency McCann Erickson (the actual ad agency which the award-winning A&E series Madmen was based on) to pursue a career in filmmaking. Pat Kennedy, lead detective of the infamous Jeffrey Dahmer case, suggested she focus on documentary filmmaking during her interviews with him. It sparked a love for the genre which would eventually lead to this collaboration on Losing Ground. Ye’s passion for the subject matter, background, and connection with China made her the ideal complement to the award-winning journalist.

While many Americans might be aware of the direction of the US in regards to climate change, knowledge of China’s current and future efforts is enormously limited. Understanding someone from the outside is confusing while an inside perspective is illuminating. In these terms, Ye Zhu was essential in many ways. Apart from her research and oversight of scriptwriting, narration recording, sound designing, and editing throughout the post production process, Ye accompanied Bernton to China to bring back reporting from the front lines of China’s changing energy industry. Interpreter, photographer, videographer, and multimedia producer were just some of the labels that can be applied to her work on this production while in China. Notably, she also conducted one of the most important interviews of Losing Ground. Ye recalls, “When we went to visit a wind power plant in remote areas of Inner Mongolia, we ran into some serious problems with the interview we had scheduled beforehand. The interviewee was reluctant to speak with us freely. We were struggling to get any useful information and the visit was coming to an end. While shooting B-rolls, I noticed a man standing by the window talking to someone in an engaging way. My intuition told me that he looked like someone in power and might be more open about the subject matter. I told Hal this man might be our way in. After convincing the man to talk to us on camera, I quickly set up the equipment and conducted a productive interview with him. He turned out to be not only the manager of the wind power plant but also someone with a thorough understanding of China’s energy industry. He provided a lot of valuable insights for us. I still vividly remember when we left the wind farm; Hal patted me on the back and said, ‘Do you have any idea what you did today? You just saved our day. This interview you insisted on conducting just made our story.’ It became the central interview in both Part Two of Losing Ground and China’s Big Push for Renewable Energy, one of the two documentaries I produced for the series.”

Bernton raves about Ye’s contribution to Losing Ground, “As an American journalist, it is challenging to gather accurate information and strategize how to report such a sensitive and controversial topic in a foreign land without raising government suspicion. Ye was instrumental in helping me obtain exclusive, first-hand information on the living situation of coal-to-gas plant workers. Without her, I would not have been able to get access to government officials or herders. Her excellent multimedia component complimented my writing seamlessly. Further, her strong journalistic instincts, amazing ability to arrange interviews, and her strategy to map out the multimedia components to the story made the piece something it could never have been without her influence.”

Projects like Losing Ground necessitate a lack of pre-assumptions or judgement. It requires copious research and preparation but also a willingness to let the story reveal itself. Someone like Ye, as skilled in the technical aspects of multimedia production, offers a great deal in this type of investigative filmmaking. Her background ranges from scripted films to social media productions, giving her both a classical and current perspective in the delivery of information and entertainment. As Ye phrases it, “No matter as a journalist or a filmmaker, it’s always crucial to understand humanity and have empathy towards the subject of your story. The big difference is journalism is more about facts and statistics, to remain impartial and objective you need to tell all sides of the story. While filmmaking is more of an artistic expression. You don’t necessarily need to present all sides. You can make it as personal as you want it to be. I’m so proud of my work with Hal Bernton on this project.”

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