By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Joyce Koh has a bright intelligence that jumps out at you. She’s friendly, optimistic, but not for a moment is she a pushover. She’s a consummate professional, a hard worker, and a go-getter. A woman and an Asian American in the competitive field of journalism, Koh stands her ground in the face of Trump supporters, opioid pushers, and Russian bombs falling on Ukraine.
Koh is relatively new to the game, yet in many ways already on top of her game. With college graduation not that far in the past, she has garnered several prestigious journalistic honors, including Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Public Service and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Overall Excellence, both in 2020. After a few media jobs, including freelancing for FOX 45 and Fox 5 in Baltimore and DC, she was brought onto one of the nation’s most distinguished papers, The Washington Post, as an enterprise video reporter and on-air correspondent. A multi-tasker extraordinaire, Koh is also a former adjunct professor of journalism at her alma mater, the University of Maryland.
When the Northwest Asian Weekly caught up with Koh, she was in her apartment in New York. Her luggage had recently been lost, but not her enthusiasm. She was slated to be in Des Moines, Iowa as part of ongoing campaign coverage of what she described as the “unprecedented” race leading up to who will be our next president. All of this in the midst of criminal proceedings against former president Trump, which Koh is also covering. She was in close proximity to a group of Trump supporters that gathered when Trump surrendered himself in Fulton County, Atlanta in August, and told us that, in the course of her work so far, that was the most endangered she felt for her own safety, apart from missile strikes in Ukraine.
“There was no organization with security and no delineation between the protesters and the media. There were a couple of moments that got really hairy,” she recalled.
Never though, and thankfully so, has Koh felt threatened due to her race or gender. Instead, she has felt threatened at times due to her position as a member of the press.
“I am very keenly aware of my race and my gender as aspects of my identity. But I think it’s saying a lot…that my position as a member of the press—what should be a free press—actually comes first when it comes to feeling any level of being attacked or…the overarching reason…I’m being targeted.”
Koh covers high profile content with calm composure. Perhaps even she is not always aware of the danger at the time, as focused as she is on her work. She has been on the ground for some of the United States’ most infamous happenings, such as the suing of Purdue Pharma for their involvement in the opioid crisis.
“When you’re a student, the most ideal story is the ‘David and Goliath’ story,” Koh stated. “Where you help facilitate putting a voice to people that are affected by corporations that are taking advantage of them, or people with a lot of money that are taking advantage of them.” Koh counts this story as one of the most personally impactful to herself, in addition to the impact on those involved.
“You want to be able to use your platform to amplify the voices of people that are hurting…who are being silenced.” Koh visited the small coal mining town of Norton, Virginia, where “opioid pain pills were being flooded…at the rate of more than 300 pills per person,” she explained. While there, she had no internet service, and had to depend on “good old shoe leather reporting.” She spoke to those that “either were recovering or were still addicted to the pills to ask them about what we were uncovering which was that…these massive pharmaceutical companies knew exactly what they were doing. They knew exactly how addictive these pain pills were.”
Perhaps some of Koh’s grit and resilience comes from her immigrant parents, who came to the U.S. in their teens and early 20’s. Koh credits her work ethic to her father and her gift of gab to her mother. She described her Korean parents as wholeheartedly supportive of her career choice, even though they had no experience in the field themselves.
“I don’t come from a long legacy of media professionals,” she laughed during a generous and open-hearted retelling of her childhood. “My mom just knew that I like talking and asking questions. She encouraged me to look into journalism, and potentially doing television journalism, because I would watch the evening news with her.” She loved fashion, and magazines like Vogue, so she thought she would go into something related. Instead, she threw herself into political reporting.
Every day is different.
“It sounds like a cliche in journalism, but it’s really true.” She could be in preparation for a story, in the middle of covering a story, or in post-production for a story. “I’ll fly to DC and I’ll prep a bunch of live hits for our live show. Then, I’ll be on air either that day or the next morning, and I’ll be on location for six hours doing live hits for our team…then I’ll go home.” In these times, in this election, to do the job right, you can’t really stop for a second. Nevertheless, the Weekly asked Koh about her life off air, off work, offline.
“There’s this amazing Korean restaurant in New York called Her Name Is Han,” she said, lighting up. “The first time I went there, I was totally blown away because it reminded me of everything I grew up eating. There’s this one dish there. It’s tteokbokki. It’s like rice cakes. But instead of the way that your Korean mom would make it, they fry them until they’re really crispy, and then they’re covered in gochujang sauce. Mmm. It’s just like the most perfect dish in the whole world.” In addition to being a foodie, Koh enjoys taking yoga classes, and she nurtures her creativity through poetry and photography outside of work. She is a loving mother to her dog, a Golden Retriever, that you will catch her saying goodbye to on the going away video shot when she left for Ukraine. On that same video, you will also see her hugging her parents.
Koh’s empathy is often evident, such as in the documentary for which she and her team won an Edward R. Murrow regional award in 2017, “Thousand-Year Flood.” You might have seen the photos that were taken—of flood victims holding the one thing they were able to save from the flood waters, a cat, a Bible.
“It was a glimpse into what was important to them,” said Koh. She might spend a lot of time on the path of the big movers in politics, yet through her unflinching eyes, Koh captures what conflict abroad and at home means to the Davids, not the Goliaths.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.