Rare is the occasion that consuming the day’s news leaves you wanting to watch more news; one of the primary purposes of the 24/7 news cycle is, after all, to remind us that the world is forever about to end and populated with unconscionable, money-obsessed pervs. And while this is not not true of VICE (CEO and co-founder Shane Smith’s got that whole apocalyptic-voiceover thing on lock), their commitment to no-holds-barred storytelling and their constant evolution amidst a rapidly changing media landscape has set them apart, making the stories they deliver not only bearable, but engrossing; you don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time with a bunch of airy pontificating and nothingburger updates (ahem, cable news networks). And its most recent foray into format-busting video news is perhaps its most noteworthy yet; VICE News Tonight airs Monday through Thursday on HBO and delivers a mix of the day’s most important stories in a concise, half-hour format shaped by a talented team of correspondents, augmenting the original VICE programming that airs on Friday nights at 11 p.m. Among the team of correspondents are Isobel Yeung and Gianna Toboni. These two women making a name for themselves as fearless, compassionate journalists willing to go anywhere and do anything to tell stories other news outlets can’t or won’t.
Gianna Toboni grew up in the Richmond district of San Francisco (“A very different city back then,” as she puts it). After studying journalism and landing stints at Al Jazeera and ABC, she struck out on her own to pursue a freelance career, eventually creating a Kickstarter for a documentary on Haiti that ended up catching the attention of VICE. Isobel Yeung was born in the English town of Salisbury and moved to China after graduation, where she ended up working for a state-run media company (“A great way to learn exactly what you don’t want to be doing [in the media],” she told us, laughing). After likewise becoming a freelancer, Isobel found that VICE’s format of long-form, immersive documentaries was exactly the type of work she wanted to be doing.
In the time since, Gianna and Isobel have undertaken assignments of incredible intensity: dynamite fishing in Tanzania, interviewing rape perpetrators in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, embedding themselves alongside Egyptian tomb raiders. The pair talked with Girlboss on one of their (rare) days off in New York City, sharing insight into what it’s like to carry out their jobs in completely unpredictable and dangerous environments, as well as what aspiring journalists can do to follow in their adventurous footsteps.
One of the most notable things about VICE is how you’re really in there. On the streets of active battle zones in Syria. Talking with ISIS fighters. At women’s rights marches in Afghanistan. What’s it like to be at the center of these often very dangerous situations, and how do you keep composure enough to do your job and…form coherent sentences?
Gianna: I mean, it’s been really incredible. We have the best jobs in the world there’s no other media company that’s giving these opportunities to young storytellers like us. I think our show, which is in its fifth season, has never been better. We get to go to these places and tell these stories about terrorism, but also the smaller stories that are happening within these incredibly complex zones. And we get to experience these stories with the people at the center of it. We walk down the street and meet people, and meet their families, and understand on a very personal level what’s happening within the issue that we’re exploring. It’s really exciting. And it’s really challenging; it’s not a glamorous job. Isobel and I laugh sometimes, because we have young people coming to us saying “I want to be on TV.” They don’t know what the job’s about.
Isobel: It’s really a unique opportunity to be able to go to the heart of humanity and to really try to put yourself in their shoes. And to try and bring a different perspective, a fresh perspective, to an audience who might not know about that subject at all, or might know a surface level amount about that. Our job is to make these stories appealing on a human level.
It’s your job to immerse yourselves in these stories and a lot of them are really devastating. How do you come out of it and re-enter a mental state that allows you to resume your lives?
Isobel: To be able to communicate and talk with your crew while something’s happening or afterward is a really important compression method I think we both employ a lot. But ultimately, I mean, we see these people in very significant, often chaotic and dire moments in their lives and we get to jump on a plane and escape that situation. Those people are left there.
You have no choice but to attempt to maintain some form of normalcy in your life, spending time with family, just trying to just detach yourself from the situation itself. I think that both of us feel extremely privileged to be doing this work, and to be able to tell these stories, and to get these unheard voices out there, and at the same time, to be able to walk away from it. I think we both struggle with it sometimes, but maintaining a mentally healthy-ish state of mind is super important to be able to continue to do this job.
We talk a lot about work-life balance, but the context is a little different for you and the schedules that you keep. During your time off, what do you do to decompress and sort of re-emerge in your personal lives?
Gianna: Both of us like to cook. We see it as a sort of mindlessly therapeutic. I love going to the dog park. It’s actually one of the things I miss most when I’m out of the country. Just walking around the park in the morning for an hour is a great way to sort of clear your head. I guess we do occasionally go on vacation [laughs]. It’s nice just to leave your phone in the room and lay on a beach and not do anything. You come back rejuvenated and ready to get back into it.
What have been your most challenging assignments?
Gianna: We just did a story on transgender youth. I think in retrospect, I realize that I feared the story a little bit, because I didn’t really understand the issue fully and I didn’t know how I felt about it. After finishing the story, on some level I understand what these parents are going through. Even when you talk to the experts, the doctors who are advising the families on how to proceed, even they don’t know the answer [on young people making a medical transition]. They don’t know how these hormones are going to effect these kids in five, ten, twenty years. So for me, it was really challenging seeing young people experience such internal conflict, and to be sort of tortured by their own being. But it also was rewarding in that these kids felt empowered by telling their stories, and we got to see that.
Isobel: I recently did a story in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on rape as a weapon of war. I think, as time has gone by, I have become slightly more hardened emotionally to certain types of stories. But, sometimes, those things will really impact you and you will be surprised by it. Talking to so many women who have some of the most horrific stories I have ever encountered and being the person that they share their stories with can definitely take its toll.
It’s that point when you realize you’re completely helpless in terms of helping these women in this situation, but you also have an incredible responsibility to bring these stories to the world.
VICE is at the forefront of a rapidly and constantly changing media landscape, and that ability and willingness to be fleet-footed with formats like you guys’ show has really paid off. Where do you see journalism headed in the future?
Gianna: I think we need to look at our generation. We need to look at the younger viewers in the country who want news, who do have real attention spans. You have to continue innovating; young people like what we’re doing, but we have to keep up with them. I think what’s at the core of it is that we just have to stay authentic, and we have to continue going to the center of these stories and form these stories in a real way. That’s what young people want.
Isobel: VICE is known for breaking the mold and telling stories that other people don’t want to tell, going to places other people don’t want to go to. I think that we have to continue doing that, and be fearless in terms of those types of stories that we’re telling. But also, we shouldn’t be afraid to break our own mold. I think the media is so polarized right now. We’re seeing more and more partisanship when it comes to the types of media that we consume. Often, we’re stuck in these echo chambers, and I think that all of us are guilty of doing that. So, I think that one of the challenges of our work is to reach a broader spectrum of people and to try and challenge people to question their own beliefs.
Any advice you can pass on to aspiring journalists or documentarians out there?
Gianna: Try to create the type of content that you want to create for whichever company you hope to work for. Even if you’re in school, find somebody who’s also in film school or studying journalism. Even if it’s just getting your hands on an iPhone with a camera. Or if you’re a writer, just starting a blog. Do something that represents what you can contribute to a company that you’d like to work for. There’s nothing more valuable than walking into an interview and showing the employer that you are already capable of doing the job.
Isobel: It doesn’t have to be something super exotic. It doesn’t have to be a far-off destination where you’ve heard something might or might not be happening. There are great stories all around us, and there are ideas to be drawn from just walking down the street in New York. So you can’t let any of the logistical issues deter you from that.
Another really simple thing: Being really prepared is crucial for getting into the type of work that we are lucky enough to do. Be as well read and as well versed as you can possibly be on the types of situations that you’re likely to confront. Know the company you want to work for front to back. Know the types of stories they want to do. And this is really important: Know the types of storiesyouwant to do.