Message from Keith
I came away heartened after attending this summer’s Asian American Journalists Association’s national convention in Philadelphia in July.
What was heartening was seeing so many Asian American journalists and journalism students, hundreds of them, many of them who have reached the top ranks of the profession, in newsrooms and on television. It’s a remarkable American success story, particularly compared to nearly 40 years ago when I first started as a journalist, and any minority reporter in a newsroom—black, Hispanic and especially Asian American—was a pretty rare sight.
It was a reminder to me that the glass can always be half-full, even though it is sometimes tempting to see it as half-empty.
I’m aware of the statistics that show newsroom diversity moving at an agonisingly slow pace. The American Society of News Editors found in its survey last year that minorities make up just 17 % of newsroom workforces, in the 646 newspapers and 91 digital-only sites. The number is not bad—but nowhere near the 37% of minorities in the U.S. population. The survey also found a dearth of minorities at the top editors’ ranks where news decisions get made.
Diversity in newsrooms is about more than just catching and calling out stereotypes and subtle racism, although that is important too. A few more Asian American news editors may have stopped Fox News last year from airing an openly racist segment making fun of Asians speaking with accented English in New York’s Chinatown.
More importantly, minority editors can help shape stories and provide context—as when the New York Times sensitively covered the 2014 shooting of an unarmed black man, Akai Gurley, by Chinese-American rookie police officer Peter Liang in a darkened housing project stairwell.
But newsroom diversity means more than just adding minority voices, and that’s important to remember in Hong Kong, China, and the rest of Asia. For newsrooms to accurately reflect and report on the populations they cover, they need female journalists as well as reporters from different family backgrounds—the children of migrant workers and farmers, as well as the children of teachers and doctors. We need LGBTQ voices in newsrooms. We need reporters who hail from China’s hinterlands, not just the prosperous coasts. We need to have more Tibetan and Uigher reporters.
If there was any doubt about the importance of having diverse newsrooms, I was reminded again this summer when I stopped in my hometown of Detroit on the way to Philadelphia. This summer marked the 50th anniversary of the deadly Detroit riots of 1967, which I remember vividly since my old neighbourhood was right in the middle of the violence. The five-day riot left 43 people dead and more than 2,000 buildings burned in one of the worst urban insurrections in American history.
The Kerner Commission, set up by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the riots, blamed inequality, segregation and police brutality for the unrest. But the commission had particularly strong criticism for the news media for failing to reflect reality, and it said the key was to create more diverse newsrooms that reflected the societies they cover.
“The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world,” the commission wrote in its report. “The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, (black America’s) burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed.” It said minorities believed the mainstream media “repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America. This may be understandable, but it is not excusable in an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society.”
Strong words then. And just as true today.