Barbara Tanabe: Communicating Responsibly

UW Communication Alumna Barbara Tanabe (B.A. 1971) understands the power of storytelling and giving a voice to those whom society might otherwise render silent.

After graduating from the University of Washington, Tanabe worked for KOMO-TV, becoming one of the first Asian-American woman to anchor on the West Coast. Continuing to push boundaries, Tanabe wrote and produced “The Fence at Minidoka.” Aired on December 7, 1971 (thirty years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor), the documentary focused on Japanese-Americans interned in the United States during World War II. For the first time, these citizens were given a vehicle to share their stories with the press and the nation. The project earned Tanabe an Emmy award and was part of the national dialogue that led to Congressional hearings and eventually a Presidential apology.

Three years later, Tanabe moved to Honolulu and joined KHON-TV. Once again, she made history; July 29, 1974 marked the first Honolulu newscast co-anchored by a woman of Asian descent. While at KHON, she broke one of the biggest crime stories in Hawaii:  a $380 million dollar Ponzi scheme that led to a CIA investigation.   Tanabe was also the first western television correspondent to cover the People Power revolution in the Philippines that led to the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos.  After thirteen years at KHON where she worked as a reporter, anchor, and assistant news director, Tanabe left to develop the public affairs and issues management practice at Communications Pacific in 1987, and later became President and CEO of Hill and Knowlton Hawaii. In 2000, she founded Ho’akea Communications and continued holding key roles in the business community as a Director at Bank of Hawaii, and in the community as a founder of the Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs.  More recently, Tanabe was recognized as a Distinguished Alumna of the University of Hawaii where she received her MBA degree.

The Department is honored to count Tanabe as one of its many pioneering alumni and is grateful for the time she gave for this interview:

What challenges did you have to overcome as one of the first Asian-American women journalists?

“I became a journalist during a time of great change, spurred by the anti-war, civil rights, and equal rights movements sweeping the nation.  When I was hired as the first Asian female reporter at KOMO-TV in 1970, I knew many viewed me as a token minority.  However, I was confident of my own abilities, buoyed by encouraging words from my professors and classmates (including Norm Rice), the news director Jack Eddy, station executive Dave Crockett, and colleagues and newsroom mentors such as Barbara Groce, Howard Stott and Brian Johnson.  Hard work, long hours, taking on stories that others rejected in favor of the coveted ‘hard news’ gave me an opportunity to get air time and demonstrate professional competence.  It would not have been possible without support from those willing to ‘give the kid a chance.’  I also received wonderful letters from viewers that helped soothe the shock of letters from others who viewed Japanese-Americans as enemies of the nation.”

How do you tackle professional obstacles?

“Professional obstacles are barriers only if we allow them to stand.  As a young and idealistic reporter, I believed there were no obstacles to prevent me from becoming the reporter I wanted to be.  Perhaps because of this attitude, I found opportunities in developing ‘stories’ that others did not feel were important, such as a family’s battle to find education programs for an autistic child, or a doctor’s study of acupuncture to relieve pain, or a Japanese-American’s perception of the Pearl Harbor anniversary.   These stories were picked up by ABC news and broadcast throughout the nation, reassuring the KOMO news room that I was indeed a solid reporter.”

Your career has included a broad array of communication specialties including public affairs, crisis management, and broadcast journalism. What is one aspect these fields have in common? What are the greatest differences between them?

“I became a journalist because I felt that a strong and vital democracy can exist only with a well-informed and engaged public.  Even after I left the newsroom, I felt I was doing the same thing – providing information so citizens and organizations, both civic and corporate, can make good decisions.  The ethics I learned as a journalist do not change with the ‘job.’  We inform others using facts from credible and authentic sources.  Integrity is the underlying common value.  The only difference is that in news, we provided balance and objective coverage of an event or issue.  In corporate public affairs, we assume the role of an advocate, providing facts to support our position.  In both, the truth is non-negotiable.”

Are there any unique strategies you employ when communicating to international audiences as opposed to those in the U.S.?

“Sovereign nations have different histories and cultural traditions.  The differences are most notable in the formal structure of language.  Communication strategies need to be sensitive to these social mores to be effective.  Western style journalism is often portrayed as a model of the ‘free press.’  But in many Asian societies, such attitudes ignore the nuances of polite communications.  So strategies need to include opportunities to fold in communications channels that respect the language used at a community or village and family level.”

What constitutes “a good day’s work” for you? How do you measure your success?

“Success is difficult to measure in quantifiable terms.  Often, success is seen as a positive result over a long term, such as the successful acceptance of a program in a community, or a corporation’s successful launch of a project.  In television news, success is often defined by higher name recognition or bigger salary or better ratings.  We would be better served as citizens if we defined a ‘good day’s work’ as doing the right thing.  In the end, those days lead to a lifetime of ‘successes.”

In your opinion, what makes an effective leader? What advice would you give students who are interested in one day heading their own organizations?

“An effective leader is a listener, a thinker who can see the root of a problem instead of just symptoms, and a decision-maker who can filter through risks and opportunities.  It might sound counterintuitive for a young person, but someone who puts the organization and mission first, rather than his own personal agenda, is more likely to succeed as a leader.”

Is there any experience that you recall from your time at UW that influenced your career?

“It’s been 40 years since I set foot on the UW campus so my memories are dim.  I remember my professor, Jack Kinkel, telling me ‘cover the story that no one is talking about today.’   That focus helped me pursue stories that became headlines in newspapers the following day.  Even today, in my role as a public affairs consultant, I think through the consequences of a policy that might not be obvious, but could later prove to be an issue of concern.”

What do you think students need to know before entering the industry?

“The news business has changed so much in the past 50 years, driven first by technology and now by partisan ideology that describes the work of the free press as ‘fake news.’  An entire generation has grown up without an understanding of the role of the free press as the ‘Fourth Estate’ of our democracy.  We need to re-educate the public about the importance of the news media as a watchdog on behalf of the public.

I am glad I chose journalism as my first career.  It gave me an opportunity to meet people at their very worst and best, and taught me how to interview different types of individuals.  Listening to the tone of their voices and watching their facial expressions and body language allowed me to speak to the individuals in their comfort zone.  I was able to receive critical information through my interview techniques, which proved invaluable throughout my professional career.  I remain a ‘newsy;’ reading several newspapers both online and in print.  I am proud of our profession and believe the First Amendment rights need to be protected and perpetuated.”