How Thanh Truong went from refugee to TV journalist

In honor of World Refugee Day, writer Thuc Doan Nguyen talks to the New Orleans newsman about his journey

Thanh Truong on location, covering the aftermath of a storm.

Courtesy of WWL-TV

Words by Thuc Nguyen

I have a special bond with Thanh Truong because we were born a few months apart in the same area of Vietnam (in the South, near the Mekong River). I was born in Cần Thơ before him, so he has to call me “Big Sister” (Chị) in the Vietnamese language’s hierarchical respect structure.

We have very similar early life situations—in not being able to escape until years after 1975 due to economic hardship and a lack of connections, both arriving to the United States in the wintertime, from a tropical locale—for a combination of culture and seasonal shock. Coincidentally, we also share a love of sports and canine companions.

Truong and I recently sat down for lunch in Uptown New Orleans on an open-air patio, where people stopped by continuously to say hello because they recognized his trusted face from television. Truong has been delivering the news to New Orleanians and beyond since before Hurricane Katrina. For that catastrophic situation branded into the world’s collective memory, Truong was out in the unforgiving natural elements with a microphone, and then at the Superdome, where thousands of displaced residents sought shelter from the floods and extreme conditions. He’s covered other major events, from federal trials to house fires, live.

Truong has been on camera for most of his journalistic career. You may also recognize him from being on the air for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, The Today Show, and also on MSNBC. After this, Truong worked at WWL-TV for a combined 12 years. Truong then transitioned into podcasting new stories in the form of The Thanh Report. The weekly episodes explore topics ranging from a drastic manpower shortage within the New Orleans Police Department to why folks in the South choose Elmer’s Heavenly Hash and Gold Brick Eggs as their go-to Easter candy. Truong is a man of the people.

In his spare time, Truong’s a writer and co-host of the popular true crime podcast New Orleans Unsolved. He’s worked alongside his wife, Anna Christie, who was the creator and investigator for their audio-series about cold cases in Southeast Louisiana. If you need True Detective vibes, this is where to go.

Truong and I spoke about his journey from refugee to local celebrity, and the power he’s found in storytelling.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

An Asian man in a suit at a news desk, with a city skyline in the background.

Thanh Truong has gone from Vietnamese refugee to on-air journalist.

Courtesy of WWL-TV

Thuc Nguyen: How did you become an American? What is your family’s story from Vietnam to New York—to you becoming a celebrity?
Thanh Truong: I wouldn’t say I’m a celebrity. There are plenty of people around that fill that role. I just think people have come to see me and accept me for what I do. I tell stories.

As for my family’s story, our first home was Cần Thơ, Vietnam. It’s about 100 miles southwest of Saigon. Like so many other families after the Vietnam War, we were boat people. We couldn’t leave Vietnam until 1978. We didn’t have the money nor connections to escape the country in 1975, when Saigon fell.

We spent several days drifting on the South China Sea, eventually getting into the Gulf of Thailand and then to a refugee camp in Songkhla, Thailand. After more than half a year in this camp, my family was sponsored by families from a small church in Upstate New York. Johnson City, New York was our new home. We went from flip-flops to winter coats and boots. I didn’t know better though. I was only 2 years old and had a great childhood.

In those initial years, my parents didn’t make much money, but we made memories. There were long summer days at the public pool at Floral Park, cookouts in the backyard and basketball showdowns among the siblings. There were six kids, so I was never lonely.

A Vietnamese family, with a caucasian couple, stand next to a car in a parking lot, with four children standing in the car's open window.

The Truong family and their sponsors the Barnos.

Courtesy of Thanh Truong

TN: Tell me about your background and how you became an on-air journalist. How does a refugee boy become an important newsman?
TT: By the time I was a junior high school, my parents had opened a Vietnamese restaurant. We were the only Vietnamese restaurant in town at the time, so we were busy. I waited tables and worked in the kitchen. A lot of customers would often say I had a radio voice.

I was a supreme slacker back then, and thought if people kept remarking about my voice, then maybe I should look into broadcasting. I didn’t have any other redeemable skills to speak of.

By the time I got into graduate school at Syracuse University to study broadcast journalism, I quickly realized how much money you didn’t make in radio. So, I looked into television news instead. To be clear though, there wasn’t a whole lot of money to be made in my early years reporting either.

I started as a part-time “one-man band” at a small television station in Watertown, New York. I was shooting and editing my own video and also writing the stories. It was great on-the-job training. I learned so much about so many different aspects of what it takes to get a story on TV. The pay at the job in 2001: $7.25 an hour. I was also part-time, so there were no benefits.

From there, I worked for two years at a TV station in Macon, Georgia. Then I landed my first reporting opportunity in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and that reporting experience helped me grow as a journalist. I moved on to another TV station in Denver, Colorado, and then to NBC News for four years and then back to New Orleans.

Two men stand together in chicken costumes, holding microphones.

For Thanh Truong, reporting the news in New Orleans has included Mardi Gras coverage.

Courtesy of WWL-TV

TN: Where can we see you on television nowadays?
TT: I’m now at WVUE-TV, the Fox affiliate in New Orleans. Most people in town just call it “Channel 8” or Fox 8. With all the instability in the media business, I feel lucky to be working for the top-rated station in the market.

TN: What was the first story you covered?  What has been the most important?
TT: The first story I covered wasn’t exciting by any traditional news standards. It was about a plan to beautify downtown Watertown, New York. The plan mostly involved hanging flower baskets on light posts. Sometimes, in the news business you have to figure out how to make a story interesting. I’m not sure if I did that on my first story, but it aired, which at that point in my career was an accomplishment.

As for the most important story I’ve covered, that’s hard to say. What I may see as important is subjective. I can say the time I spent with New Orleans and the people here during and after Katrina still hits me today. I’ve also been with so many families who’ve lost sons, daughters, and family to gun violence. I never lose sight of the importance of those stories because they are about someone’s loved ones. And in those situations, I’m often meeting people on the worst day of their life. I try to take extra care of what I say and write for those stories.

TN: What stories are you excited to cover in 2024 and beyond?
TT: There are some milestone moments coming in 2025. That year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. It’ll also mark 20 years since Hurricane Katrina. I believe I’m in a unique position to offer a certain perspective on both.

An Asian family stand in front of a car in front of an airport in the 1970s.

Thanh Truong and his family arriving at Binghamton Airport in New York.

Courtesy of Thanh Truong

TN: Please tell me more about New Orleans Unsolved and what you hope to accomplish with it. How did you first hear about these cases?
TT: When I left TV news, I was looking for a different way to tell stories. In 2019, podcasting was still evolving. It was a more open space, story-wise. You could world-build in podcasting. My wife, Anna Christie, was a fan of true crime and floated the idea of starting a podcast. We eventually created New Orleans Unsolved. It’s an episodic, narrative podcast that focuses on one case.

The first season revolves around the case of a 17-year-old whose body was found floating in the Mississippi River in New Orleans in the early 1980s. We first saw a newspaper story about the case, but thought there was so much more to the case that should be told.

I never really set out with a specific goal for the podcast, I just wanted to tell a compelling story. But Anna always had her sights set on solving it. And if you listen to both seasons, I think she accomplished that goal. She did the investigative work. I was more involved in the editorial and production side of the podcast.

Early in my career, I had a news director that suggested I change my name. I said I would when they would change their name.

TN: How has being Vietnamese American affected your career trajectory in front of the camera? How do you feel the state of the industry is for someone like you?
TT: There have been challenges during my years in television. I never took on a more “American” name. I’ve always used the name my parents gave me. And even though my name is only two syllables, there’s usually a learning curve when co-workers and people watching say it for the first time.

Early in my career, I had a news director that suggested I change my name. I said I would when they would change their name. I maintained by name and I actually ended up having a great working relationship with that news director.

I’m not sure being Vietnamese American has affected my career trajectory. I don’t spend much time thinking about it because at the end of the day, I can’t change who I am. Maybe I would’ve had different opportunities if I was some other variation of human, but that’s all hypothetical. I do think that the state of media is much more diverse now than ever before and there are plenty of other journalists out there with much more difficult names to pronounce than mine.

A closeup of an Asian man in a blue raincoat in the rain, with a palm tree and road in the background.

Thanh Truong's career as a broadcast journalist has included covering storms and extreme weather.

Courtesy of WWL-TV

TN: If you could go back and do anything differently in your life or your career, what would it be?
TT: I would’ve left my job as a network correspondent for NBC news and spent more time with my father. I was so caught up with gaining traction with the network that I did almost anything to get assignments.

I was able to come home and be with my father when he passed away, but I should’ve done so months before that took place. My mother says my father was proud of me for how far I had come in my career, but looking back at now, that time I could’ve had with my father was far more precious.

Another thing I would’ve done differently in life was be more serious about basketball in high school. I wasn’t mature enough to really internalize everything my coach was telling me at the time. Decades later, I’m still applying his life and court lessons.

TN: Any tales about your tattoos?
TT: I have several tattoos, but the most significant one is a hawk’s face on my chest. It was gifted to me after a trip to Hạ Long Bay in Vietnam. I was on a boat and was talking about my father when a single hawk kept flying above the boat for quite some time. It felt like my father’s spirit was flying and watching over me. It’s over my heart. Seems like an appropriate place.

A group of Asian children laugh and smile while in a river.

Thanh Truong and his siblings swim in Songkhla Lake in Thailand.

Courtesy of Thanh Truong

Published on June 20, 2024

Words by Thuc Nguyen

Thuc Doan Nguyen is a former child boat person refugee who was sponsored to the small town of Kinston, North Carolina. She grew up there, in Raleigh, NC and in rural Southern Maryland. She’s lived in Europe and has an Irish passport, as well as an American one. Thuc is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. She's a writer and essayist for publications like Vogue, Esquire, The Daily Beast, VICE, Refinery29, Southern Living, PBS and now JoySauce, among others. She loves dogs and college basketball. You can find out more about her work at