Alumni profile: Betsy Joles thrives as a freelance reporter covering conflict zones, pandemic


Betsy Joles on assignment

By CHARITY NYARAYI MATIZANADZO

Global Business Journalism reporter


The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns about the sustainability of a career in journalism. The closing of newsrooms and furloughing of staff has left journalism students struggling to navigate an uncertain future.


But one recent Global Business Journalism program graduate, Betsy Joles, has discovered a path forward. The 26-year-old from the United States has carved out a thriving career as a freelance journalist across Asia specializing in the human side of war and the aftermath of conflicts. Equally adept at words and images, her multimedia work has appeared on well-known global news platforms including Bloomberg News, Foreign Policy, NPR, The Economist, Al Jazeera, Politico, and CNN.


“It is very hard to make a living as a freelancer,” said GBJ Professor Lee Miller, the editor-at large and chart of the day columnist for Bloomberg News. “But the fact that Bloomberg has also used her photos in very competitive market spaces says she has a lot of talent and has an eye for the story.”


Betsy Joles conducts an interview for a story in Pakistan

Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Joles has family members spread across the American Midwest. She grew up swimming and fishing in Wisconsin, which she calls her second home.


She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts in International and Global Studies. Joles admits that her career change to journalism was prompted by her curiosity to gain practical experience during the Syrian refugee crisis, which she had learned of in her undergraduate classes.


“I moved to Turkey during my junior year of college with vague aspirations of becoming a documentary photographer,” Joles said. “After some months of uncertainty and confusion, I started a photo project documenting the integration of Syrian refugees into Turkish society.”


The field experience changed her career path.


“I was struck with a clear realization that I wanted to approach humanitarian issues at eye level, instead of from a bird’s eye view,” she said. “Journalism felt like the most authentic way for me to understand complex lived experiences without demeaning them.”


With her passion in sync with her career, she began to cover stories “on the aftermath of conflict and the human side of geopolitics in the Middle East and East Asia.” Joles expanded her knowledge and skill set, as her work was published on international media platforms.


She enrolled in the Master of Arts in Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University in September 2018. She credits the program as an avenue that allowed her to “live and report in China – one of the most challenging places in the world to do journalism.”


The move to China, like any of her international experiences, presented her with a chance to own her career.

“I got to cover some of the biggest news events of my life from the epicenter, with the safety net of Tsinghua underneath me,” she added.

The global coronavirus pandemic gave Betsy Joles an opportunity to show her reporting and photography skills

But she had no warning of what lay ahead of her in a foreign land.


“Time on the ground certainly softened me to the endearing qualities of the place that I would not have appreciated otherwise,” Joles remarked.


She made the most of her time at China’s top university, reporting extensively around the country during university breaks. The GBJ graduate seized the opportunity to share something new about China to the global world, from a foreign correspondent’s perspective. And, she created a name for herself through working “continuously and consistently.”


“She has travelled all over in terms of what we would call hot spots around the world,” said Professor Miller. “She is very keen on being a journalist who looks at human rights and social equality around the world.”


Her practice brought out a side of the journalism profession that her classmates never knew of. Her zeal and ability to apply for freelancing reporting grants while studying exposed them to the possibility of being international brands.


While most had gained journalism skills in their home countries, their experiences, unlike Joles, were restricted to their then immediate worlds.


“I had never written anything with a global audience in mind,” said Sangeet Sangroula, a former classmate now working in Tsinghua University’s Global Communication Office. “[Through Betsy] we got first-hand experience of writing for a global audience, the challenges, what they look for and the kind of skills we need to have.”


Sijia Li, a close friend from Tsinghua now working as a copywriter for a Montreal company, commends the courage and dedication displayed by Joles during their time in grad school.


“I learned that sometimes in life you have to take risks to do what you want,” said Li, a Chinese-Canadian “I really liked her story about drug use among Syrian refugees. I think it was a very difficult story to report [on] and it is a topic that deserves attention.”


During their master's studies, the two friends visited Inner Mongolia to cover a story about China’s dairy industry. Li referred to this trip as a great experience. Both spent three days at small dairy co-op without running water and they made use of an abandoned stable as a toilet.


“Inner Mongolia was suffering from a years-long drought so everything was dry and yellow,” said Li. “The wind blowing off the grasslands flung sand in your face. Then we took a train to the Chinese-Russian border and stayed in the weirdest city I’ve ever seen.”


The more Joles travelled to Chinese provinces, the more absorbed she was with the will to tell stories of characters who had opened their arms to her.


“I have felt this urge most acutely after being graciously welcomed into the worlds of people who’ve experienced extreme hardships yet are not jaded to my queries, though they have every right to be,” said Joles.


For Sangroula, Joles’ commitment to reporting on minorities was emphasized by her fluency in speaking Hindi. Her proficiency caught him by surprise. Later on, he discovered that she had been to India and had undertaken The Hindi Urdu Flagship language program at the University of Texas at Austin during her undergraduate studies.


Joles backed up her commitment to her career path through writing and submitting a master’s portfolio of news stories on the legacy of China’s one-child policy. Sangroula mentioned that she was among the few who had written portfolios, and he considers hers to have been “the best among all.”


Betsy Joles, speaking at the 2020 Global Business Journalism commencement, was awarded academic honors for her master's portfolio

The GBJ alumna chose to write a portfolio instead of a thesis as she believes that journalism is different from academic research.


“It is an entirely different animal, which involves the art of subtlety in communication that academia cannot teach you,” she said. “If you want to be a journalist, you have to learn these soft skills, and there is no other way to learn them than by throwing yourself into difficult reporting settings and figuring out how to navigate them.”


Such settings include her coverage of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan. A year after the outbreak and practicing in Pakistan, she pitched a health-related story to NPR and it was published on March 11.


“Betsy pitched a compelling story about the impact of the pandemic on health workers in Pakistan, focusing on violence directed against health workers,” said Marc Silver, the editor of the global health and development blog, Goats and Soda, which is a part of the NPR digital site.


Silver regards this story as a relevant topic for the package NPR had been preparing, as it focuses on “how health workers around the world are faring.” He described her as a strong reporter and writer, with a knack for capturing good pictures.

Betsy Joles has a knack for building trust among sources as she reports across Asia

Professor Miller could not help but state that her career path is a difficult one, although she has been hired and contributes to “impressive and diverse" news services.


To be a foreigner covering complex and controversial topics in countries known for critiquing and detaining journalists from abroad means Joles risks being misunderstood by her sources.


“There is always a steep learning curve when working in new places, and it is not always easy to convince people of your motives,” she noted. “You always risk being seen as an outsider who will never have enough cultural context to do a story justice, even if you invest heavily in it.”


But, not everything about her lifestyle is complicated.


She enjoys spending time outdoors “climbing mountains, hiking in the woods and exploring the quirks of places foreign and familiar.” Li added that she sometimes does yoga and plays soccer.


Joles sees success as something relative. She enjoys freelancing and is “willing to sacrifice some degree of normality and stability,” as she believes the lifestyle suits her.


“I’m not sure if it is sustainable and I’m not sure how long that feeling will last but for the moment, fulfillment from the work is how I measure success,” she said.


In an industry where many young professionals have gotten frustrated by dwindling opportunities, Joles has found a rewarding niche.


“Betsy took a lot of initiative and showed a lot of creativity during her time as a student and has done likewise since she graduated,” said Professor Miller. “She brought a heart as big as Texas when she came to China. She is continuing to show her heart in many ways, in the work that she has done.”

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