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Asian Americans in Media: “You Can’t Extricate the Humanity of Yourself From the Journalist”

Reporters are trained never to become the story, but as newsrooms cover violence against Asian Americans, journalists of Asian heritage find themselves — and their cultural identity — in the spotlight.

Elaine Quijano was on call for CBSN the night of March 16 when word of the shootings in Atlanta broke. Coincidentally, she was in the middle of a pre-interview for an update to the streaming news network’s Asian Americans: Battling Bias, a 30-minute special that first aired last October and was expanded to an hourlong version March 31.

“My producer said, ‘There’s been a shooting,’ and I was relaying information to the activist [I was interviewing] in real time,” the anchor tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There was a silence on the other line, and then I heard her start to cry.”

Over the next few days, Quijano had panels to moderate and interviews to conduct and a nightly political news show, Red and Blue, to anchor, leaving her little opportunity to process for herself the killing spree that left eight people dead, six of them Asian women. “I was numb. I’m tired on so many levels because it’s a lot to confront,” she says. “There was no time to reflect on this in a detached way.”

Similarly, the morning after the shootings, NBC News correspondent Vicky Nguyen had to do a preplanned Today segment on summer vacation and travel. “I couldn’t get my mind right,” she says of trying to get into the “positive and upbeat” Today show spirit while still reeling from the carnage the night before. “That was the nadir for me. But since then, thanks to essentially crying it out after that, I went back into work mode, and that’s how I’ve been coping with it.”

Over the past year, Asian American journalists have been doing their jobs amid a mounting wave of physical and verbal attacks on Asians across the country (up 145 percent in 2020 in 16 of the top cities in the U.S., according to California State University San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism), exacerbated by former President Trump’s insistence on blaming China for the pandemic and referring to COVID-19 with racist terms, including “Wuhan virus” and “kung flu.” With few outlets having committed long-term resources to reporting on the Asian American community, coverage of violent incidents felt sporadic and scattered to many among the affected population, and often driven by Asian Americans in the newsroom who were warning of a larger story unfolding in real time and watching it barrel toward an unthinkable, inevitable culmination.

“[The shootings] capped a year of racialized attacks, many of which went unreported,” says Nightline anchor Juju Chang, who, like many if not most or all Asian Americans, is no stranger to being the target of racial slurs; she was the victim of one such incident last summer. “I didn’t report it; I did what everyone who grows up in this country feeling somewhat othered does, which is swallow it and keep going. That has been the silent pain of Asian Americans for so long. This last year there were so many other pressing events going on: a worldwide pandemic, an election, a giant racial reckoning.”

After ABC News aired its hourlong 20/20 special “Murder in Atlanta” on March 19, Chang says many non-Asian friends told her they had had no idea about the year’s worth of context surrounding the Atlanta shootings. “That to me speaks to the relative invisibility of Asian Americans, and why this is such an important moment,” she adds.

Newsrooms caught off guard

Immediately after the Asian American Journalists Association issued media guidance on covering the Atlanta shootings, the nonprofit’s website crashed (the last time that happened was nearly a decade ago, when it released a response to a 2012 “Chink in the Armor” headline on an ESPN.com story about Jeremy Lin). That, too, spoke to the relative invisibility of Asian Americans — that newsrooms around the country would still find themselves so unprepared to cover a major national story about the community.

“They’re not ready, overwhelmingly,” says ESPN commentator Pablo Torre. “If media organizations are taking the time to think of AAJA, they are at least taking the time to locate an Asian American perspective. It’s such a low bar. But that alone does feel like progress in our longstanding struggle to merely be included in a conversation about race.”

The guidance included straightforward tips on the proper formatting of the Korean and Chinese victims’ names (initial stories simply replicated coroners’ reports, which inaccurately abbreviated as middle initials the second word in the women’s personal names), plus a video of two AAJA members demonstrating how to pronounce them correctly. But the advisory also contained more nuanced guidance about the intersection of racism and sexism in violence against Asian women, in direct contrast to Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jay Baker’s credulous parroting of the shooter’s claim that his actions were prompted by a so-called sex addiction and were “not racially motivated.”

“When newsrooms rushed to quote that, it made it clear to us that there were not enough AAPIs [Asian American Pacific Islanders] in leadership or people who are well-versed in the histories and experiences of AAPIs to take a step back and ask, ‘Wait, why does he get to decide?'” says AAJA president Michelle Ye Hee Lee (who also is a national reporter for The Washington Post).

“Growing up, there were many times where my dad’s car was vandalized and I would have to translate and fill out the police report for my parents,” adds CNN anchor Amara Walker, who is Korean American. “I remember the flippant attitude of the cop dismissing our concerns as ‘just another form of vandalism.’ Because we’re so underrepresented in newsrooms, our society is so unaware of these microaggressions. Some people will say it’s biased to have an Asian woman covering a story about shootings that involve Asian women. If anything, it’s an asset to share this perspective that nobody understands. Who’s going to report on [racist incidents] if they don’t even recognize them?”

In the immediate aftermath of the Atlanta shootings, AAJA received reports from some members that their newsrooms were excluding them from assignments to cover the crimes, for fear that they were too biased or “emotionally invested” to do the job fairly. (Black journalists around the country reported similar experiences last summer regarding their ability to cover the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s slaying by police in Minneapolis.)

“If there is a reporter who has the expertise and the language capabilities to cover the community, they deserve the right of first refusal,” says Lee of AAJA’s advice in such situations. “They are the most qualified person in your newsroom to cover and navigate the community and all its complexities.”

At the same time, Lee says she also fielded several requests from national news outlets scrambling for Korean-speaking freelancers in Atlanta to help unearth information about the four Korean victims. It took longer than it typically does with other mass shooting casualties (of which the U.S. has had plenty) for biographical details to emerge about some of the slain Asian women. The body of Daoyou Feng, who had no known family in the U.S., was unclaimed in the morgue for seven days, and even a photograph did not emerge until three weeks after her death, when 40 strangers from Atlanta’s Chinese American community held a funeral for her April 6.

On the other side of the country, The Sacramento Bee reporter Jeong Park began compiling a Twitter thread translating key details in reports from Atlanta-based Korean-language media, which were in a position to be journalistic first responders not merely because of their linguistic facility but also because of their pre-existing immersion in the local Korean scene. Those reporters were already familiar with the Korean small businesses and could dive into their networks to quickly find witnesses, who under such traumatic circumstances were more comfortable speaking with outlets who had built relationships among the community.

“The Korean media’s sourcing was a lot better because mainstream media doesn’t typically cover these communities,” Park says, adding that the vantage point of the two types of outlets also differed. “Early on, there was a rush [in English-language media] to talk more in the framework of law enforcement. Korean media is focused on how [the shootings] affect their community, which is understandable because the mainstream media usually comes from an outside point of view.”

Still, Park is quick to note that he’s not trying to draw a value judgment between the two. Korean media relies more heavily on anonymous sourcing than mainstream Western publications generally find acceptable, and it isn’t foolproof: Park points to an early Korean report that shared an anti-Asian social media post allegedly from the shooter, which Facebook later confirmed was fake. One solution, Park recommends, is for English-language outlets to form collaborations with their ethnic media counterparts.

Vicky Nguyen and Jeremy Lin - NBC NEWS The Racism

The case for cultural competency

Hearing CNN national correspondent Natasha Chen say shooting victim Xiaojie Tan’s name as her family did can be a surprisingly poignant experience, when everything else about how her adopted country treated her race, gender, line of work and circumstance of death seemed to flatten her humanity.

But Chen and other Asian American journalists say that cultural competency goes beyond — and doesn’t even necessarily require — knowing the language or dialect, of which the Asian diaspora contains more than 2,300, by one count. “One of the questions we always ask of grieving family members is, ‘If [the deceased] were here right now, what would you say?'” says Chen, who interviewed Tan’s daughter, Jami Webb. “The usual answer is, ‘I would tell them I love them,’ and Jami said that too.”

Chen sensed there was more, and asked a follow-up: “You didn’t do that a lot, did you?” Webb admitted she and her mother seldom expressed their affection directly. “I felt Jami’s pain in feeling like she missed that opportunity,” Chen tells THR. “Traditional Asian moms show their love through acts of service — cutting you fruit every night, asking if you’re hungry. Because [saying ‘I love you’] is such a common response, if the reporter were not someone with a shared background, that context would have been missed.”

Jeff Nguyen, a reporter for CBS’ Los Angeles affiliate, notes that one distinguishing mark of a superlative reporter is knowing the follow-up questions to ask. “As journalists, we have to be mindful of not putting ourselves in the story, but my personal experiences make me a better interviewer,” he says. “If I interview an Asian American man, I better understand his [desires] to prove his Americanness by enlisting in the military or joining law enforcement. If I interview a woman of AAPI descent, I understand her concerns about being sexualized.”

NBC Asian America reporter Kimmy Yam says that her working-class Fujianese upbringing has helped her “parse out” the intersectional class, gender and ethnicity issues in her coverage of ongoing attacks against Asian Americans: “People chalk it up to pandemic racism, but coming from a family that has lived in these areas in Chinatown that are low-income and experience a lot of violence, I can see that a lot of the violence preceded the pandemic or has just been exacerbated by it.”

Yam’s background underscores the diversity within Asian America, a reality that media outlets would do well to grasp when seeking to cover specific communities and people. “There are so many differences in this vast diaspora from the largest continent on Earth, and to everyone else it’s just ‘Asian,'” says Last Week Tonight With John Oliver senior news producer Marian Wang, a former reporter at ProPublica. “We don’t think about that with any level of detail when we staff newsrooms. It’s very different if your family came on an H1B visa five years ago [versus] a student visa in the ’80s or as a refugee. I’m worried that we’re not ready for those conversations at that level of granularity, and it’s in everyone’s interest that we gain a fluency in covering the diaspora.”

There are inherent benefits to lived experience, but some journalists note that fluency can be acquired as well. “We need to be hiring better and smarter, but you can cover assorted cultures with some basic guidelines. The language may be a challenge, but there are always people who speak English wherever you go,” says Anh Do, who covers Asian American issues as part of her metro beat for the Los Angeles Times. “It’s just a matter of whether you have the patience to listen and bypass the accents to really open yourself up to hearing the untold things they have to say.”

To master a community beat over the long term, Do, a second-generation journalist who previously worked for the U.S.’ largest Vietnamese-language paper, the Người Việt Daily News, also advocates taking a page from ethnic media and engaging with local events, from cultural celebrations to business openings to political debates. “It’s like being a foreign correspondent in your own backyard,” she says. “If people see your face often enough, they will be like a tourist guide to you. Your genuine interest and searching questions will spark all sorts of responses, and it will lead to better storytelling and deeper bonds.”

In fact, AAJA cautions against expecting journalists of color to solely bear the burden and responsibility for telling their communities’ stories, particularly the traumatic ones. Last month, AAJA published a compilation of mental wellness resources for its members, and in the wake of the Atlanta shootings launched the AAPI Journalists Therapy Relief Fund, which to date has raised more than $70,000. The night after the massacre, the group also organized a Zoom session with two licensed AAPI therapists on standby for its members.

“It’s not commonplace for AAPI journalists to talk frankly about how they’re feeling and why they’re feeling that way. They have an aversion to it because they’re journalists, but also because [attention to mental health] is not a cultural thing,” says AAJA’s Lee. “But they’ve spent the past year covering the violence against people who remind them of their parents and grandparents. At a certain point, you can’t extricate the humanity of yourself from the journalist. It’s all intertwined.”

Learning to lean in

Journalists are trained not to become the story, but CBS News senior White House correspondent Weijia Jiang saw her racial identity make headlines last year when her news conference questions about the Trump administration’s pandemic response repeatedly drew the ire of the then-president and his officials, one of whom reportedly called the novel coronavirus “kung flu” in direct conversation with Jiang.

CBS News correspondent Weijia Jiang

“Every time I would press the administration about their response or ask a question that was interpreted as a criticism, my inbox would be flooded with questions about my patriotism and whether I was a CCP [Chinese Communist Party] plant,” she says. “That was difficult, because I am a proud American and an immigrant. And so being on display in that way could be challenging at times.”

The China-born, West Virginia-raised Jiang, whose memoir, Other, will be released next spring, says that one of her biggest regrets as a young reporter was downplaying her personal identity in her work. “I was so hesitant to pitch stories about the Asian American community,” she says. “I was worried about being pigeonholed and thought of as someone who either only got her job because she’s a minority or is an activist. And so I regret not using my job to be a voice for a community that may not have one otherwise.”

MSNBC anchor Richard Lui, who at CNN in 2007 became the first Asian American male ever to anchor a daily national newscast, shared similar fears early in his career, especially coming up at a time when there were so few journalists who looked like him at that stage. “Do I want to be pigeonholed as the AAPI pitching AAPI stories? It’s what I dealt with when I first joined CNN and for a while at MSNBC,” he says, adding that about a decade ago, his mentality shifted, as it has for so many of his fellow Asian American colleagues. “I’m seeing it in the eyes and words that everyone’s using. I know that I have a responsibility, and it’s OK to do this. I am a subject matter expert when it comes to talking about growing up Asian in America.”

It’s important to note that, given the multifaceted nature of the Asian American experience, some members of the community have been shy to claim the identity in their work for a very different reason. “I’m in a position of enormous privilege. What right do I have to weigh in on these conversations or comment that I feel drained or emotionally invested in this story at all?” says The New York Times‘ California Today correspondent Jill Cowan, who is biracial, of the conflicted grief she’s felt in processing the Atlanta shootings. As with so many other journalists, the work of reporting has been a place of refuge: “For me, it’s been helpful to report, to talk to people who know more about the discourse around anti-Asian racism.”

Says Lee, “We’re trying to be as visible as possible because there are so many out there feeling unheard and unseen. What you’re seeing from AAPI journalists now is that this invisibility has hurt our professional opportunities, our news coverage and our community’s ability to be thoughtfully covered in the news.”

In March, Jiang — now covering a different administration — used her turn during the White House’s (reinstituted) daily press briefing to ask whether President Joe Biden had a response to the graphic assaults against Asian American elders being shared on social media. “I distinctly remember when [activist] Amanda Nguyen’s Feb. 5 viral video [describing recent attacks and pleading for the media’s attention] came out; the next day I had a seat in the White House briefing room,” she says. “I don’t know that someone else would ask about the videos and if the president was aware of these attacks and what policy changes might come out of them.”

For some, the documented beatings of Asian Americans over the past year have brought to mind an incident from 39 years ago, when Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man, was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat in Detroit by two white men who were angry about the Japanese auto industry’s effect on local jobs. “The ones who went to help the case of Vincent Chin be told and heard and documented were journalists like Corky Lee, Ti-Hua Chang and Helen Zia. They were three out of only dozens of members of AAJA at the time,” Lui says. “Now we have 1,700. And today, to see our journalism community’s honesty and poise and ability to embrace our responsibility as civil rights reporters for an ignored history — it’s an amazing thing.”

A version of this story first appeared in the April 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.