Shrinking newsrooms perpetuate draining of colour
Like many businesses, American newsrooms have been forced to cut back their staffs during the coronavirus pandemic, shrinking the number of journalists of colour covering the crisis. Many worry that, as the coronavirus spreads disproportionately across the country, hitting communities of colour the hardest, the lack of diversity in journalism's ranks is reflected in news reporting.
In the early days of the outbreak, for example, news organisations published generic photos of Chinatown neighbourhoods and masked Asian people with stories about the coronavirus pandemic, which critics said fuelled xenophobic ideas about who carried the disease.
“How can the industry adequately report on communities in a fair manner, while combating implicit bias, when the majority of our reporters don't come from these communities and don't understand the complex and nuanced behaviours and issues stemming from these communities?” said Tauhid Chappell, a board member with the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
Since the pandemic hit, an estimated 36,000 employees of media companies have been either cut or had their pay reduced, according to The New York Times. This downward trend is nothing new for newspapers, which lost half their newsroom staff from 2008 to 2019, according to the Pew Research Centre.
And with this exit also goes diversity, which retired newspaper editor Gregory Moore calls the “whitening of the media”.
Moore, the former editor of The Denver Post, where he was among 11 African-American top editors at daily newspapers when he stepped down in 2016, said: “It's been historically true that the first thing to lose in an economic downturn, or situations with staff cuts, is diversity.”
While 60 per cent of Americans are non-Hispanic white, according to the Census Bureau, a diversity survey by the News Leaders Association found that 81 per cent of print newsroom leaders are white, along with 78 per cent of staff.
Doris Truong, the Poynter Institute's director of training and diversity, notes that less than one quarter of the 1,883 news organisations targeted by the self-reported survey responded. And other media companies, such as broadcast and digital outlets, were not included in the survey.
“It's particularly important to look at who is leading newsrooms,” Truong said. “The leadership still trends towards white and male.”
The lack of diversity was reflected in some coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Photographs of Asian-American pedestrians in masks have sparked backlash when local and national newsrooms used them to illustrate unrelated stories about the virus, reinforcing stereotypes that one racial group is responsible for spreading the disease.
In February, The Mercury News (San Jose) issued a mea culpa for publishing a front-page photograph of a masked maintenance worker in San Francisco's Chinatown under the bold headline “First coronavirus case in Bay Area confirmed” — although that case was reported 50 miles away in Santa Clara County.
Forbes magazine and The New York Times also were chided on social media for using photos of Asian people in masks to illustrate coronavirus stories. Both outlets changed the criticised images.
In March, the New York Post tweeted a photo of an Asian man in Flushing, Queens, with a link to its story about the first confirmed case in New York City — a Manhattan woman who contracted coronavirus in Iran.
Critics screenshotted the original photos and shared them on Twitter, noting that not only was racism being spread, but also distrust in the media organisations themselves. The posts included the hashtag #fakenews.
“Even as the crisis was getting under way, there was a lot of misinformation spreading around, using images of Chinatown to kind of stand in for China,” Truong said.
Using stock images of Asian-Americans “when the story had nothing to do with Asian-Americans” can contribute to fears about patronising Asian-owned businesses, said John Yang, president and executive director of Asian-Americans Advancing Justice.
His group worked with other Asian organisations to start a response network that tracks racist incidents during the outbreak and found 2,000 in the past two months.
To better reflect communities of colour in news reporting, Chappell used a Twitter call-out to create a list of diverse experts on the pandemic.
“It's 2020. There's literally no excuse in the media's ongoing lack of representation within the industry, and within its sourcing,” Chappell said.
This kind of list is particularly helpful to journalists on deadline, when “diversity of their sources may not be top of mind”, said Caroline Chen, a healthcare reporter for ProPublica.
“There is a tendency for the media to repeatedly go to the same experts over and over again,” said Chen, who collaborated with Chappell to create the expert list. “I see a lot of familiar names in the stories I read, and I certainly call those folks, too.
“To some degree, that is warranted. Those experts are called upon because they are truly knowledgeable in their field. But, more often than not, I would say the principal investigators of studies, directors of research labs, heads of medical departments, etc, are male and white.”
To find more diverse sources, Chen asks the people she interviews for recommendations. She said she also works on diversifying her source list on Saturday mornings, so she is not scrambling to find folks on weekdays.
“I think it's our job as journalists to recognise that in a complicated and evolving situation like the coronavirus pandemic, that there's no such thing as a uniform experience for Americans as a whole, or people in an entire state,” Chen said. “Things like income, zip code, pre-existing health conditions, all which can be tangled up together with race, are critical factors in affecting the experience one has during this time.”
News media legitimises the experiences it covers, said Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of global digital media at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, so members of communities that are absent or misrepresented can suffer real-life consequences.
“It's a pattern of erasure,” Ong said. “In a way, you're really forced now to wear some blinders to ignore all of these other experiences. And I think that's disappointing for us as Asians. It's a common experience to always be overlooked.”
• Marian Liu is the Travel Operations Editor for The Washington Post