Diversity re-imagined: what we failed to talk about when we talked about newsroom diversity

The New York Times newsroom, September 1942 Marjory Collins, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When a group of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) journalists founded the Asian American Journalists Association in 1981, they envisioned bringing accurate and fair coverage of communities of color to journalism. They did so at the “golden age of affirmative action,” in the words of Paul Delaney, the first black reporter at the New York Times’ Washington bureau, a time when the most efforts were made in U.S. newsrooms to make the industry less white and more inclusive. 

Four decades later, industry leaders are still talking about ethnic diversity in newsrooms. 

Newsroom crisis, witnessed in a pandemic

Nothing has shown the consequence of lack of diversity in newsrooms clearer than the past year. 2020 has seen a rise in racial conflicts and hate crimes not only in the U.S., but across the world. At tragic events like the Atlanta shooting which killed six Asian women, immediate breaking news coverage showed a hesitant trend: news organizations referred to the victims as women of “Asian descent,” while not mentioning the race of the suspect – and later quoted the police to indicate that the shooting was not “racially motivated,” wrote AAJA member Doris Truong for Poynter. 

She asked, “Are we getting as many sides of the story as we can even as the story evolves?” The Atlanta shooting coverage unveiled long-time bias in reporting at U.S. newsrooms when journalists didn’t bother to dig deeper into the connection between the sexual exploitation of the AAPI community and existing anti-Asian racism, Jon Allsop wrote for Columbia Journalism Review. Many used the language barrier as an excuse for missing or undercovered AAPI stories, yet it speaks to a deeper problem in who tells the story. 

“Diverse newsrooms are a journalistic imperative,” tweeted 60 Minutes correspondent Wesley Lowery. Since the beginning of the pandemic, AAJA has been calling on newsrooms to use careful and accurate language in covering the AAPI community, in order to avoid fueling xenophobia and racism. 

Hard facts, similarly, failed to account for the AAPI experience. AAJA member Shirley Leung wrote in her column at Boston Globe that nationwide data, including wage disparity and poverty rates, does not present a complete picture of the struggle of the AAPI community during the pandemic. “The inconvenient truth is that the Asian American experience is not nearly as well known as those of other minority groups,” she wrote. The lacking narrative, however, cannot be uplifted without newsrooms opening up to journalists who look like the community they cover. 

It is not only about race and ethnicity and is not limited to U.S. newsrooms. In 2021, only 22% of top editors across 240 major news outlets are women, a Reuter’s Institute study found. The status of gender minority journalists matter more than the number of them, researchers said, as top editors make important editorial decisions and lead the directions of newsrooms, while consequently forming the newsroom culture for those who cover and those who are being covered. Sara Luterman, who identifies as a disabled journalist and covers disability policy, pointed out that 20% of the U.S. population is disabled but few reporting focused on, or accounted for, the disabled experience.

Gentrified Industry in Asia

In Asia newsrooms, the overlooked problems are more complicated. 

In a first-person reflection of how he started in the industry, Marc Lourdes, the director of CNN Digital Asia, said that an unspoken problem in the newsrooms is socioeconomic diversity. 

In the past decades, he wrote, the journalists we have continued to grow into a population of college graduates with incredible resumes and impressive qualifications. In contrast, their predecessors generally came from a blue-collar background. 

“As much as journalism has improved thanks to these highly qualified professionals, it has also lost touch with blue collar or underprivileged communities – that ability to empathise and understand the problems as well as perspectives of such communities, which even today form the bedrock of most countries,” Lourdes wrote. The problems presented in blue-collar communities are joblessness, poverty, and their effects on families and individuals. 

Lourdes called major news outlets in Asia, such as CNN’s branch there, as a gentrified industry. Many aspiring journalists come from a certain educational background and follow a standard path, said Gilles Demptos, director of AAJA-Asia. 

The situation is further complicated when considering that in many developing countries in Asia, the voices of local newsrooms have been restricted since the pandemic. As more journalists are laid off, or even arrested, as a result of worsening press freedom and financial pressure that burdens newsrooms, it becomes harder to build an inclusive, diverse newsroom. 

“In a lot of Asian countries there is no press freedom, which is the major difference between us and the U.S.,” Demptos said about addressing newsroom diversity in Asia, “what we want to avoid is to come with our preconceived ideas and concepts from the U.S.”

Meanwhile, every country is different, and that’s why representation is important. Developed countries in Asia appeared to be doing the worst in newsroom gender balance, results from Reuter’s Institute survey shows: none of the major outlets in Japan has a female top editor, compared to 11% in South Korea, 13% in Hong Kong, and 55% in the Philippines. Insofar as behind-the-scene journalists are the basis of reporting that addresses the audience in their local market, that newsroom makeup eventually impacts the way that readers consume information. 

However, in Asia, one needs to take a step further and ask the question, how many can access the news, and whose perceptions are shaped by the reporting being discussed? Web foundation analysis has found that men are 21% more likely to have internet access than women, and the number is 52% in the world’s least developed countries. The Business Times found that around 150 million adults in Southeast Asia, around one-third of the region’s population, do not have the capability to access digital media – with strong variations across all countries, as audiences in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines still rely heavily on TV news.

“News distribution has never been easy,” Demptos said. 

Currently, AAJA-Asia is undertaking a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative that starts with a survey and focus group research of members from different countries, which will become the basis of systematic solutions to the pressing issue in newsrooms. It takes a long way to address a broad and sensitive topic like newsroom diversity, and industry leaders need to start now.