Gina Chua and the pursuit for more diverse stories and newsrooms

Gina Chua

Today, Gina Chua is an executive editor at Reuters. An Asian and one of the most senior transgender women journalists in the United States today, her appointment is a testament to both her tenacity as well as the industry’s recognition that diverse voices make for a better range of stories.

Her seniority means she has seen much change over her 36-year long career, which has seen her as an editor at the Asian Wall Street Journal (now the The Wall Street Journal Asia) and editor-in-chief at the South China Morning Post.

Chua, born in 1961, grew up in Singapore as an English subject. The sun was already setting on the British Empire by then (Singapore would gain independence just four years later), but the legacy of western colonialism in Asia tinted her lens through which she saw the world as an Asian.

“When you grow up [as a colonial subject], basically every Western person you see is in charge of something … so it affects the mind when you suddenly — as I was when I became editor of the Asian Wall Street Journa — become in charge of a newsroom full of Westerners,” Chua said, who was known as Reg before her transition in late 2020.

She is part of a new cohort of diverse leaders.

“The new editor of the Washington Post, Sally Buzbee, is a woman. The new editor in chief of Reuters – my boss – Alessandra Galloni is the first woman [to hold that position] in 170 years. The last two editors of the New York Times have been a black man and a woman,” Chua said, referring to her contemporaries.

But despite the progress made, there is still work to be done.

Chua focuses on two entwined factors in the news industry where progress needs to be made: hiring and coverage.

In terms of hiring, using a blind-hiring process may help diversity. Chua uses the example of American orchestras. In the past, musicians in American orchestras were mainly chosen by the conductors.

The result was a male dominated performance hall – only six percent of musicians in the top five ranked orchestras were female. After blind auditions were implemented, where screens were used to obscure the musician from the jury, the number of female musicians rose to 21 percent.

“They weren’t trying to hire women; they were trying to hire the best musicians. But when you can see who is playing, it affects your hearing,” Chua said. Bias may close doors to applicants who do not look like the one in charge of the hiring process.

“The best way to improve representation and diversity in the newsroom is to try and create as many of these blind tests if you’re hiring a copy editor. Have a copy editing test, anonymize the results and then score them,” Chua suggests.

But that is only one half of the newsroom. Output is just as important as input, and here Chua calls for us to reconsider what we consider news.

“What is a newsworthy killing? Generally, it’s something out of the ordinary,: young co-ed gets killed somewhere. Blonde woman is murdered in some neighbourhood. It’s not to say these stories aren’t valuable, but then there’s a ton of other killings that don’t get that don’t get covered. Why don’t they come get covered? Why aren’t they important?”

Chua says we can only start to reconsider what is important, and by extension newsworthy, if we hire diverse sets of people.

“For a long time, newsrooms were controlled by a particular group of people who have a particular lived experience. Something out of the ordinary to them is a story. But that’s not true to others… If you have a representative newsroom, and multiple voices in your community that you’re serving, you’ll be able to get a better sense of what the story is and why it matters,” she said.

However, the pandemic threw a spanner in the works for many companies looking to revamp the composition of their newsrooms due to budget cuts.

The good news is big organizations, like Reuters, are beginning to rally from the economic fallout of the pandemic and starting to hire again. This is a good sign for diversity in theory, Chua says.

The bad news concerns smaller news organizations.

“Smaller newsrooms have been much more disproportionately hit by the pandemic and by the economic crisis. What will happen to them and their journalists? And what will happen to the communities that they provide news to?” Chua asks.

But it’s not just doom and gloom for Chua.

“I’ve seen green shoots. I’ve seen new ideas, and new experimentation come forth, even in these dark times. But the jury’s still out. I think it’s going to be an interesting time [for the news industry].”