D.E.I. can thrive in Asia’s news industry. Here are five reasons why.

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Earlier this April, AAJA-Asia released findings from a year-long study on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in seven Asian news markets: Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and Taiwan. The Advancing News Diversity in Asia (ANDA) report, based on focus group interviews with journalists, an industry-wide survey, and interviews with newsroom executives, established that DEI concepts are values Asian journalists expressed as central to their success and mission. Nine in 10 agreed diversity improves news quality and 8 in 10 said diverse reporting would attract more audiences and improve experiences and interactions in the newsroom. That said, journalists gave their industry only mediocre scores for DEI. Inclusion lagged in several markets, and discrimination persists across countries surveyed. Journalists expressed being held back by structural and institutional pressures in their DEI efforts. While the DEI results are less than stellar, more nuanced triangulation of the three sets of data indicates that DEI can thrive in Asia’s news industry. The study offers five reasons why.

Journalists are speaking up against discrimination they face

Over 80% of survey respondents answered a series of questions on discrimination and sexual harassment, indicating that journalists are willing to speak up against these heinous acts they had personally experienced. Their responses indicated that sexual harassment is a prevalent problem in Asia’s newsrooms and that it especially affects women. Overall, 56% of women journalists reported receiving sexist remarks or sexual innuendos at their news outlet, while 41% of them said they had received unwanted physical contact from sources or newsmakers. Women and older journalists also reported feeling more discriminated against.

Journalists too weren’t holding back in self-reflection and criticism. Despite their unequivocal endorsement and support of diversity and equity, the survey indicated an ambivalent assessment of the level of DEI in newsrooms and news content, with South Korean and Japanese journalists giving their news media the lowest scores.

Journalists in junior management or non-management positions also gave lower DEI scores to their news media, compared to middle and senior management. This finding is indicative of “woke” journalists who expect organisations to improve DEI, and progressive news organisations will take action. Furthermore, with 77% of journalists stating that advocating for social change is a very or extremely important role for the news media, and another 78% calling for newsrooms to improve DEI, newsrooms can expect their members to want to actively participate in DEI efforts.

DEI is good for business.

Successful businesses thrive on hiring and retaining good employees who have job satisfaction and are motivated to perform well. A Deloitte’s study also found that millennials factor in the inclusive culture of a company when choosing an employer. Our survey found that in Asian newsrooms, job satisfaction and talent retention are closely linked to DEI. We observed a frequent correlation between perceived level of DEI and job satisfaction: journalists in Indonesia and the Philippines, which gave their news media the highest DEI scores, also indicated they were most satisfied with their jobs. At the other end of the spectrum, Japanese journalists gave the lowest DEI score and had the second lowest job satisfaction level. Journalists who said they would remain in their news organisations rated their news organisations higher in DEI while those intending to leave gave lower DEI scores. Dismissing DEI is no longer an option for news outlets wanting to succeed. On the contrary, to future proof themselves, progressive newsrooms will make DEI the norm.

Diversity stories and sources remain untapped

Diversity in Asia embraces a wide array of issues, beyond gender or ethnicity. Journalists in the focus groups also stressed the need to acknowledge and represent indigenous identity, sexual orientation, age, citizenship status, language, education, socioeconomic circumstance, geographical location, disability, criminal record, religion, mental health, and political view.

Overall, two-thirds of journalists ranked socioeconomic status and class, gender and sexual orientation, mental illnesses, aging and ageism, immigration, disabilities and race as issues that were very or extremely important for the news media to focus on. Journalists surveyed were also sensitive to the DEI needs of their own communities, localising issues for their own countries. For example, age came up as the top issue in Hong Kong and Taiwan; class was the most important in Japan and South Korea; race and disabilities took precedence in Indonesia; and mental illnesses were ranked first in Singapore and the Philippines.

Yet, when surveyed on their frequency of coverage of these subjects, over 70% said they had never or rarely reported on people with mental illnesses or disabilities. Two thirds never or rarely reported about people whose sexual orientations differed from theirs or about people with lower education level. More than half never or rarely reported about people who were of lower income, were of different races or ethnicity, whose language were not the main local languages, or were not citizens of the country they worked in.  

These findings reveal how, despite their exhortation on the need to be more diverse and inclusive in their reporting, journalists have yet to tap on this trove of issues and sources. In the focus group discussions, participants complained that their DEI story ideas often failed to see light of day due to a lack of newsworthiness, often defined in terms of a story’s relevance, impact and uniqueness. Most blamed a lack of time or a lack of audience for these stories. Yet, the next two reasons indicate that these barriers can be dissipated.

Major barriers are tangible, with practical solutions

Resolving ideological differences and persuading people to change entrenched values are more difficult than removing tangible, practical barriers. Fortuitously, the major obstacles preventing journalists from producing more diverse and inclusive journalism are practical in nature. Respondents to the survey pointed first and foremost to the lack of time: 62% of journalists said that reporting breaking and daily news didn’t leave them much time for DEI stories while 58% said that deadlines made it difficult for them to access diverse sources. Newsgathering standards and requirements presented the second most common barrier to journalists being willing to pursue DEI stories. Almost half the journalists surveyed indicated that obtaining visual or audio content for DEI stories was difficult.

News executives interviewed, including South China Morning Post managing editor Brian Rhoads, acknowledged these as “every newsroom’s challenge.” However, a strategy to combat that, used by SCMP and news outlets including Indonesia’s Tempo and the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, is by tracking the balance of sources in their stories and developing databases of diverse experts.  

“If I tell you, ‘Go do this story and here’s three experts and two of them call you back, then you’re going to do that story with those two who call you back. But if I say, ‘Check the database of women experts and start going down that list’ and it’s a list of a couple hundred. If you have that in front of you instead of just the three names I rattled off just because those are the ones I remembered, you’re going to end up having a better chance of getting more diverse voices,” said Rhoads.

Collaborating with special interest groups to produce features or gain access to sources are also strategies for working around limited resources. Taiwan’s News Lens would work with niche media covering LGBT issues to repost their stories or produce features together, said co-founder and chief content officer Mario Yang. News outlets like Taiwan’s Public Television Service and Singapore’s Mothership also work with NGOs to enable their journalists to develop understanding of issues and gain access to groups such as migrant workers.

“This is the part where we can broaden our horizons, have more contacts, have dialogues with some non-government organisations, and then know what they need more and ask them to provide suggestions,” said Tony Su, PTS’s manager of news department.

Audiences are changing, and editors are on board too

The survey reveals ideological barriers journalists had to contend with as well. Respondents expressed concerns with how audiences might respond to their reporting of DEI stories, with four in 10 journalists saying that they avoided DEI stories because they tended to receive negative feedback or comments online. Editors also cited the need to take into account audience sensitivities when dealing with DEI stories.

Editorial decisions also presented a common complaint among reporters in the focus group sessions who felt there were “gaps in thoughts” between them and their supervisors. One reporter said his boss felt that audiences wouldn’t be interested in stories about minorities. Another said supervisors “may not even see the problems and issues that vulnerable groups are encountering in society, which makes it even harder for us to convince them to let us publish these stories. And even if he allows us to publish, he may edit the story in a way that distorts its initial idea.” A third reporter said that editors may be interested in the issues but found themselves challenged by the scale of the in-depth reporting often demanded by DEI stories.

These barriers are breaking down though. News executives signalled a significant recent shift in their audiences’ attitude towards diversity. Younger generations of readers and viewers are more aware of diversity issues and respond negatively to underrepresentation in news coverage, resulting in an increase in the newsworthiness of DEI.

“Nowadays, the consciousness of the audience is evolving quickly,” said Asahi Shimbun’s deputy managing editor Tsutomu Ishiai. “They’re paying more attention to minority issues, equality and rights and SDGs (sustainable development goals), and those issues are really becoming a centre of our topics.”

In the survey, over 60% indicated that editors and executives need to have DEI training, with journalists in the majority of markets saying that training for editors and executives is a top strategy to improve DEI in their newsrooms. An encouraging finding is that this sentiment was supported by management too, indicating that editors too are on board for change. Specific training for editors and executives could consequently focus on educating them to better understand DEI, helping news leaders to transition and implement processes that will ensure the systematic evaluation and improvement of DEI levels in the newsroom and all the news content it produces.

The full ANDA report, which can be downloaded at https://anda-aaja.com/report, details how journalists in the seven Asia news markets feel and think about diversity, equity and inclusion in their newsrooms and journalistic practices. Addressing DEI is a monumental process but the responses from within the news media tell us journalists across ranks are earnest about change. Leveraging this wave of enthusiasm can only improve the journalism we produce, increase the public service journalists provide to its communities, and strengthen the bottom line.