Award-winning TV producer Matt Chan’s work on national television has influenced American culture, but he keeps pushing the envelope in community storytelling and citizen journalism.
Chan, who retired after a 45-year career in television, has brought his experience to teach workshops on community video journalism, and has created campaigns for politicians and nonprofits in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.
“I have the skills that are useful to people, so why not use what I know to make a difference?” Chan said. “Communities, especially vulnerable ones, have to tell their own stories.”
In 2016, Chan produced a documentary “Who Killed Donnie Chin,” on the unsolved murder of the Chinatown International District community activist the year before.
A year after Chin’s death, Chan created the documentary to tell the story of the grief in the local Asian American community and the void left by Chin.
The Donnie Chin documentary was a departure from the reality TV show “Hoarders” that had made Chan famous. “Hoarders” was the first television series that focused on compulsive hoarding. The show Chan created still continues to inspire shows with similar themes.
For full disclosure, I am one of the students of Chan’s advanced storytelling class in the University of Washington this quarter. But this Q&A taught me a lot of things that Chan didn’t talk about in his class.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Thomas Chengxi Zou: How do you think emerging technology is influencing citizen journalism?
Matt Chan: The ability for someone to go out and shoot a story or document an event is much better now because you’ve got the tools now. You have your iPhone.
But what doesn’t change — what technology would not do — is to give you an overlay of what is good journalism. What’s being fair? What’s being journalism? How do you tell a story that is accurate? That is the most important to me. Otherwise, you are just a part of a propaganda machine.
What was the reaction from Chinatown-International District’s Asian community to your movie “Who killed Donnie Chin?” Have you been experiencing any challenges?
I did receive some resistance, but that’s expected. Anytime you tell a story that has some controversy to it, someone’s going to push back. Me not being born and raised in Seattle’s Chinatown has put me at a disadvantage because I’m considered as an outsider.
In any culture, there will be a group of people that tend to stay in their community and being protective, and I do understand that it’s unity. But as a journalist, it’s my job to find that story out, reflect on it and report that. Being a community journalist, you don’t have to be part of that community to tell their story, but you have to tell the story accurately.
You told me in our advanced storytelling class that there were not a lot of minorities in the TV producer community, what was that like?
When I started as a TV producer, there were hardly any minorities. I would go to programming conventions with a couple of thousands of people and be the only person of color or there, besides maybe a couple of African Americans.
All the traditional stuff that you hear people joke about, that’s real. [As an Asian American] you tend not to choose a business like entertainment because your parents would say, what kind of job is that? You need to be an engineer, a doctor, a dentist, or a pharmacist.
But I think it’s better now because as successive generations establish themselves here, when you get fourth, fifth, sixth generations of Asian Americans, they’re much more blended.
The election campaign video you made for Joe Nguyen was one of the many memorable videos you have made for the Asian American community, what made you want to do that video and what was the experience like?
I’m always down with helping other Asians, not only Chinese, all Asians. That’s because there’s not enough representation of Asians in politics. So I said to Joe that I’ll do it, but you do it my way.
The campaign turned out to be a success and received over 60,000 views in 72 hours in his district. I felt great because we got an Asian elected to the state senate. He represents a lot of Asian communities. He is an Asian American who not only relates to his own culture but every other Asian culture. And I think that’s what matters.
Do you think your work has been changing the attitude towards social issues in the Seattle Asian community? What does it mean to you?
I don’t think anything changes overnight but I am happy to see that Asians from various background are getting involved.
They are not so much hampered by the things that pulled their parents down like institutional racism.
I think attitudes towards social issues are now changing because people are changing. They are seeing themselves with more power — economic power and political power.
What’s your take on the idea of having media education in the community?
I think media literacy is probably the most important issue facing society today.
As young people get older, they have to understand how media and communication work so they’re not susceptible to fake news. Media literacy would help them analyze what they see.
On the other hand, everybody can afford a piece of paper and a pencil. So if you can’t afford video gear, write your story. Because communication is communication, whether it’s words or whether it’s pictures or sound, use what you can to communicate because the story is what’s most important.
Conversations on Tech and Social Justice: This story was made as part of The Seattle Globalist’s 2019 Emerging Tech Fellowship, in partnership with the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership master’s program.