Discrimination and bias persist in Asia’s newsrooms and news coverage

Dr. Debbie Goh, Ph.D

In the Philippines, a journalist lost her job when she had a high-risk pregnancy.

“The company told me frankly that they cannot grant me three more months just for sick leave because they have to look for another employee that will replace me so that the operation in the newsroom will continue,” said the radio journalist.

In Singapore, a young reporter was cautioned by her female colleagues that getting married or having kids could jeopardize her career.

“Speaking to other female colleagues in my newsroom, I’ve actually heard that they have concerns about their performance being rated poorly after they get pregnant and have a baby. I heard them have concerns about how, if they get married, promotions get delayed or they get fewer opportunities because the company is worried that they put resources into this person and she will end up leaving the organization because of family,” she said.

The discrimination and bias journalists experience in their newsrooms also affect how news gets covered. Stories of minority communities, whether they are migrant workers, new immigrants, indigenous groups or people who identify as LGBTQ, often do not get covered because they are “obscure,” “too polarizing,” or “aren’t popular with the mainstream audience.”

These revelations emerged from a series of focus group interviews conducted this year, where journalists from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan shared their experiences and challenges with diversity, equity and inclusion in their newsrooms and when covering stories.  

The focus group study is part of a research project by the Asian American Journalists Association-Asia Advancing News Diversity in Asia (ANDA) initiative. ANDA, supported by the Facebook Journalism Project, aims to raise awareness and improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in Asia’s newsrooms.

There’s momentum globally to improve DEI as citizens around the world engage in dialogue on racial justice and equity. DEI encompasses gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, religious affiliation, socio-economic background, age and other experiences of disadvantage. The media industry is instrumental in influencing views on race, diversity and equality. The news media, in particular, have a responsibility to fairly represent the diversity of the communities they cover.

Improved coverage of diverse communities occurs in tandem with improving diversity and inclusivity in newsrooms. Nevertheless, concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion tend to be defined from a Western perspective, which may not be relevant to Asia, which is culturally, politically and economically distinct and diverse. Furthermore, DEI efforts developed for a libertarian, free-press system may not apply to journalism in Asia.

Journalists in Asia negotiate daily with the interests and expectations of the political and cultural institutions that define the societies they operate in. Designing effective DEI strategies requires first understanding what diversity, equity and inclusion mean to journalists in Asia. It also requires recognizing the heterogeneous needs, problems, goals and strategies that are context specific.

This standpoint guides our research to unravel and discover how journalists in Asia perceive DEI in their newsrooms and in their storytelling. It helps us establish definitions of DEI that resonate with Asia’s journalists, and allows us to identify DEI opportunities and challenges. The research will help raise awareness and build understanding of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Asian journalism so that the industry can work towards improving DEI in news coverage and in the newsrooms.

In May and June, ANDA conducted nine focus groups sessions with 44 journalists from 38 news outlets in the seven Asian markets. The focus groups laid out DEI obstacles journalists faced, but also revealed insights on how journalists strategized and circumnavigated hierarchical roadblocks and political and cultural sensitivities so they can do what they feel journalists need to do – respecting and accommodating different views and ideas, giving visibility to minority groups and being a voice for people.

In August and September, a survey will be sent to journalists in the seven Asian markets to ask about their DEI experiences and also their views on DEI strategies proposed by the focus group participants. The survey targets 2000 responses. The large sample size will validate the focus group findings and also reveal insights that are representative of the industry.

These findings will be disseminated to news organizations and journalists to raise awareness and trigger conversations that will convince newsroom leaders to implement solutions for improving DEI in the workplace and in editorial coverage. Changing the culture within the newsroom is a critical step towards achieving DEI. As a participant in the Singapore focus group puts it, “You need to have the kind of environment where people feel safe to make their voices heard and equity is part of it, to make sure that the voices that tend to be silenced get amplified. Only after that can we get real diversity in your organization and also in coverage.”To find out more about the initiative and participate in the survey, visit https://aaja-asia.org/advancing-news-diversity-in-asia-anda/