Editor Reflections: What we lost in the Will Nguyễn news cycle

By Lyn Phan
Published August 17, 2019

What do we lose in a 24 hour news cycle? Apparently, we lose a lot. Taking into consideration that it’s not feasible to consistently produce long form pieces that go into great detail on any story reported, I wonder about the philosophy behind prioritizing stories in mainstream media. Why do some stories get more care and attention while others don’t? I know that newspapers need stories that will sell; they need stories that are politically, socially, and culturally provocative. But doesn’t a mass protest in a country that is historically known to suppress free speech suffice it to deem a more thoughtful probe? 

When Will Nguyen was detained last June in Việt Nam for partaking in protests against the 99 Year Land Lease policy and the Cyber Security Law, there was ample media coverage within the weeklong span that this case was gaining momentum. We learned that he was an Ivy league graduate, that he was pursuing a master’s in Singapore, that he was beaten and bloodied while protesting in the streets of Việt Nam. Beyond that, however, what did we learn about Will and his motivations?  

Before I did any work for Will’s story, I got the impression that his involvement in these protests were merely coincidental. That he was just some Vietnamese American who just so happened to stumble his way into the protests. That, for how chaotic it already was on the streets, he was adding to that chaos. I wanted to know what his motivations were. Why, aside from national identity, was he invested? The more I read about Will’s case and the more I varied where I was getting my information from, the less hopeful I became about finding the answers- it was all reading the same. Contextually, I couldn’t understand why he was there. 

Admittedly, I’m not a classically trained journalist but I understand and appreciate the difficulty and complexity of the work. Sometimes, you’re unable to gain access to intimate details of the story you’re reporting on, or the person you’re profiling, but after learning what I've learned from his own testimonies, I wonder how many probing questions were asked. 

So what do we lose in a 24 hour news cycle? As I found out from listening to this week’s On The Record with Will Nguyen: we miss historical and cultural investment in one’s country. We miss small human interactions with one’s supposed adversary. We miss the connection to why one made the active decision to hit the streets and voice opposition to a proposed law they see as harmful to the future of Việt Nam. 

When it comes to media coverage of backstories that enrich our understanding of individuals and moments, Will says that perhaps a lot is not covered because “people won’t necessarily care and… why would they care?” I guess I can’t answer that question, but I do know what we lose.

Listen to the story here: