AAPI Journalists Discuss Last Week’s Murders in Atlanta, and How Their Colleagues Should Be Covering Incidents Involving Hate

By A.J. Katz 

A white male murdered eight people last week at multiple spas in the Atlanta area, six of whom were Asian women. This horrific act is just one example of an increasing trend of violence against the AAPI population in this country over the past 12 months.

We caught up with CBS News White House correspondent Weijia Jiang, NBC News correspondent Jo Ling Kent (above), NBC News digital news chief Catherine Kim, Fox Business correspondent Susan Li, MSNBC anchor Richard Lui, ABC Good Morning America Weekend co-anchor Eva Pilgrim and PBS NewsHour correspondent/NewsHour West anchor Stephanie Sy to get their thoughts on what transpired last week, how other journalists should be covering a event like this, and their respective experiences as AAPI journalists in predominately white TV newsrooms.

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered as an AAPI journalist in this business?

Kent: First of all, it’s an immense privilege and responsibility to help represent the AAPI community to our viewers. It’s something I take very seriously and I feel a deep sense of duty and personal pressure to get it right. At the same time, I’ve been called names and described in ways that are reprehensible, to my face. And I’ve only realized after talking with AAPI friends in journalism that we as Asian American women are often held to standards that are frankly different than others, because of who we are, what we look like or what someone believes you “should” be. When it happens, I always try to give the benefit of the doubt and see it as an opportunity to address it, but I’ve been in situations where it’s coming from people at the highest levels of power. I’m hopeful that the more our stories are shared and the more we tackle it directly, the less it’ll happen. I’m also acutely aware that some of my AAPI colleagues go through a lot worse and I very much stand with them in solidarity to make the world of journalism better.

Kim: It took me longer to learn how to speak up and not question my own voice in the room. In fact, it took me awhile to understand how my cultural background and upbringing (like not challenging your elders or causing “good” trouble) shaped my career, ownership of a story and overall development. Of course, even as a veteran in the business, I still have to remind myself to speak up.

Li: Getting a foot in the door has always been a tough part of the business which might be true for everybody else. But then there was always the next step of proving your ability and getting the next opportunities to grow. Thankfully in the last few years, the world has slowly changed and become more progressive. Back when I started I always felt that as a minority female in the business, you had to work harder and run faster in order to show everyone else you could keep up and produce reports that were just as good.  Those were great challenges that motivated me to do my best work and chase for the biggest interviews. I’ve always believed that when people underestimate you or have low expectations, that was the best situation to come out ahead. I’ve had several people in the industry tell me on numerous occasions that a news channel only needs one Asian face to represent the population. Thankfully that limited quota system and archaic way of thinking is slowly ending.

Susan Li

Lui: The biggest moment for AAPIs in journalism is today. We have not seen such widespread reporting by AAPIs across all beats, not just AAPI issues. On the leadup to this moment, AAPIs were more often guested as subject matter experts on AAPI issues more than news of the day.

Pilgrim: I think there is often this feeling of being token in a newsroom. AAPI broadcast journalists are often the only one or two in their newsroom. It makes you feel sometimes like your viewpoint isn’t significant. It also makes it really hard to have your viewpoint taken seriously when you just don’t have the numbers to advocate for you. The problem is if you don’t say something, there isn’t anyone else to do it. The burden to speak up especially about AAPI issues is heavy and it’s squarely on your shoulders. When you do say something you are often seen as wanting to work on a pet project, even when the elements of the story rise to the standard that would normally make air.

For me I’ve personally also struggled with this idea that I’m not Asian enough. I’m half Korean. I was born in Seoul and raised by a hardworking single Korean mother. My actual life experience isn’t something that people often expected because of how I look. 

Sy: I think early in my career, it was  a persistent challenge to prove to people in the newsroom that I was more than a token Asian on-air person. Television broadcasting is one area where Asian women have in fact had visible and editorially important roles for many years, thanks to trailblazers such as Connie Chung, Tricia Toyota and Lori Matsukawa. Connie Chung was a dogged journalist of the highest caliber, and it’s an honor to be compared to her, but I can’t tell you how offensive it became to have people constantly yell at me, “Hey, there’s Connie Chung” whenever I showed up on the scene when I first started out as a local news reporter. It erased my individuality and humanity every time.

What is one specific experience that really stands out to you?

Jiang: Covering the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic was a unique challenge because I’m Chinese American, and the former President used quite a bit of anti-Chinese rhetoric to describe the virus. Every time I pressed him about something, his supporters accused me of being a “plant” for the Chinese-Communist party even though I was asking questions on behalf of the American public.

Li: I remember early on in my career as a young graduate trying to get a spot on-air in one of my first TV jobs. It was Chinese New Year and I volunteered to cover the parade and the festivities. When I raised my hand, one of the older assignment editors said to me, “You don’t want to be known as the Asian girl.” Being young and naïve at the time, I thought maybe he’s right? But then I also remembered that we were taught to report on what we knew and find an area of expertise for yourself. I never saw myself as being solely represented by or limited to the color of my skin or ethnicity. So when he said “Asian girl” it reminded me that I may not see myself as just skin-deep but others might.

Pilgrim: I naturally have lighter brown hair. I had a news director once tell me that I needed to dye my hair darker because it would make me look more Asian. You can’t help but walk away from a comment like that feeling like you’re anything more than a check mark for a diversity box. I don’t think that person intended to make me feel like I was only there to check that box, but it makes you constantly wonder if they actually think you belong there and are doing a good job. It pushed me to constantly have this feeling that I needed to prove my worth and do more and be better. I felt like I had to be good because I didn’t want people to think I was hired only to fill a quota.

Sy: There are countless ignorant, racist, misogynistic comments that I have had to tolerate over my career. I once introduced myself to another network correspondent whose first comment to me was “my wife is Chinese.” I once had a colleague try and explain to me how Taiwanese people can be referred to as Thai. I had a news director put his arm around me while referencing porn. I was told by someone in the business that my resume reel connoted that I was “just another personality-less Asian woman.” I had a white female colleague say to me that she could never hope to get an anchor job because, unlike me, she was not a minority.

Stephanie Sy

Do you have any advice to offer other journalists of AAPI descent who might just now be starting a career in TV news?

Jiang: When I was starting out in my career, I was worried about being pigeonholed as someone who only cared about Asian-American issues because I did not want to be viewed as an activist. As a result, I hesitated to pitch stories from the community. I really regret that. Now, I encourage younger journalists to embrace what makes them stand out—whether that’s their race, their socio-economic background, or even a hobby they are passionate about. These things shape our perspective, and perspective is a powerful tool in reporting.

Kent: My advice is to get out there, do the best job you can possibly do covering the stories you’re most passionate about and let your work shine. Along the way, build alliances within the AAPI community and beyond, because there’s nothing better than having people advocating for you in this business who believe in your work, who help you get better and help you rise to your dream job.

Kim: Work hard, do your homework and prepare, prepare, prepare. Use your background and experiences to give voice to your work and find good allies and mentors in your newsroom who support your development. And generally, be consistent in how you treat assignments and pitches—with care, seriousness and your full attention. Especially, when starting out, this goes a long way.

Ultimately journalism is a public service—it’s delivering something that is useful and informative to your community. Bring your AAPI perspective to the table, whether it’s a language skill, community contacts or cultural understanding. We need more of it. That’s why diversity and inclusion in journalism is so important.

Li: It’s a much better time to get into the business than it was in previous years. I think there’s a lot more understanding and acceptance of the changing world we live in. TV news is reflecting that progress by telling the stories that affect all communities including the recent surge in Anti-Asian violence. I would advise young journalists to stay true to their beliefs and not be afraid to use their voice because we’re all in this together.

Lui: It’s been 16 years since I started as an anchor. Over that time, I’ve learned one thing in broadcast journalism: Do it because you love the craft of journalism and finding facts.

Pilgrim: You are important. It is so critical for newsrooms to have people from different backgrounds. We may not have the numbers of other groups but we have an important role to play to ensure our organizations do good and accurate journalism that correctly reflects the real world. 

Find allies. That doesn’t mean other AAPI journalists. You need to find other minorities and non-minorities to help champion you and your stories. While it can feel lonely being the only AAPI person in your newsroom, there are people who will stand with you and fight for you and with you for what is right. There is truly something special about this business where I think many people believe a important part of our job is to provide a public service. I’ve been so inspired by colleagues. 

Eva Pilgrim

Sy: My advice is to not let anyone define who you are; speak up when inappropriate comments are made about you or others, and do the work to understand how your own perceptions and sense of self have perhaps been unjustly shaped by others.

What should journalists know about covering incidents involving AAPI hate? For instance, there are people who are frustrated with news organizations glossing over certain details—such as a headline or banner saying that a man killed 8 without specifying that they were mostly Asian women.

Jiang: Stop AAPI Hate is the leading advocacy group tracking hate crimes since the pandemic. There is a wealth of information on its website that explains why the founders saw a need to create the group, the crimes that are happening in the community, and a breakdown of the victims. Our job is to find and tell stories. No matter who we are covering, it is our responsibility to provide the clearest picture we can about our subjects. When I was working in local news, I covered countless murders and other tragedies. I tried my best to paint a picture of who the victim was, and what their life meant to others. If you leave out important details about their identities, then you are not doing a basic job.

Kim: Don’t just talk to 2-3 of the most vocal advocates on the topic. Interview residents, shop owners, church leaders, community activists, AAPI leaders and groups and more. Be thorough in your reporting and get all the context.

Li: My advice would be the same advice when it comes to covering any story. Always make sure you know the facts and make sure you report the important details which in this case does include the fact that 6 out the 8 killed in Atlanta were Asian women. I would also back it up with statistics that are hard to argue against and irrefutable. For instance, Anti-Asian violence has jumped 150% the past year according to a California State University study. It is also a fact that in this case, the perpetrator has claimed his motive was sex addiction—that also needs to be reported. But it is also fact that fear in the Asian community has been heightened by this horrific event. Journalists are responsible to tell all sides of the story and back it up with real information.

Pilgrim: Details and words matter. How we frame stories can either inflame matters or help. Talk to your colleagues that are AAPI journalists and ask questions if you need. Understanding what racism looks like for Asian Americans is critical to how we tell these stories. The last thing we want to do is make things worse. We have to remember there are often direct consequences for real people based on our coverage decisions.

We have to use the same basic concepts of journalism we apply to other stories that aren’t about hate. When most of the victims are Asian or all of the spas are Asian, that should stand out to us. Under different circumstances a detail like that would stand out to pretty much everyone.

For example. 10 robberies all on the west side of town. What does that detail tell us? Is a robber targeting businesses on the west side? Of course we would tell people the robberies were on the west side of town. No one would ever question that. It affects people on the west side. It’s important for people to know where this is happening and who it is affecting, right? But more important, it helps us figure out what questions to ask next.

Sy: We must try to treat all people we cover holistically—trying to understand how their culture, nationality, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic backgrounds, mental illness or abuse histories…all play into the people we become and choices we make. We must try and be nuanced in our reporting and avoid slipping into easy narratives. This requires challenging ourselves at a very deep level and examining our own biases and fragilities, as well as separating politically-expedient narratives from facts.

This site has a substantial readership among people employed by television news outlets. What is one thing you’d like to tell them about the events of the past week?

Jiang: I was disappointed to see that some coverage of the mass shooting included quotes from the local Sheriff’s office about the suspect’s motive without offering important context. The officials relayed a message from the shooter that the crime was not racially motivated, but that does not mean the crime was not racially motivated. In this case, understanding why the hyper sexualization of Asian women is a form of racism is important. That’s why we must have diversity in the newsroom—not so we all “look” different, but because our lived experiences can contribute to the quality of our work.

Weijia Jiang

Kent: I would say our stories matter and more of them need to be told in this moment and beyond. History and the current moment show us that they’ve been swept under the rug for far too long. Our stories matter, not just to us, but they also matter to the American public. If we as journalists and news organizations are going to be the public service that we ought to be, then we need to cover AAPI stories comprehensively.

Kim: These stories have been very difficult to hear for many, but especially those in the AAPI community. Make sure the decisions you make around coverage are as informed as possible and draw on the expertise of your AAPI newsroom colleagues.

Li: The emotional outpouring of grief and sadness this week is not just about this one sad tragic event in Atlanta. It’s about long simmering fear that’s been percolating throughout the Asian community for more than a year now. When you hear stories of the vulnerable and elderly being attacked and killed based on solely on their skin color and ethnicity – we should collectively say no more. This is not who we are! We are not a country of hate and xenophobia and it needs to stop.

Lui: See the parallels of today’s AAPI experience in intersectional ways. Every group whether ethnic or otherwise is not only just one thing all the time. They are many things all the time. Donating to journalism organizations that support these ideals like NAHJ, NABJ, AAJA, NAJA, NLGJA, SPJ and more, helps to develop strong newsrooms that can see the depth and breadth of the past week.

Richard Lui

Pilgrim: Equity in coverage matters. I have sadly covered a great number of crimes and mass shootings in my career. We need to do for one what we do for all. If your policy is to not glorify the shooter and turn your attention to humanizing the victims and finding heroes after events like this, then you need to do it for every case, every time no matter what. We can’t pick and choose when we cover victims and how we cover victims. When we don’t do it equally, we tell our audiences that certain people don’t matter. People do matter. Our coverage decisions have consequences. Remember that. 

Sy: Let’s remember that every community, including communities of color have racist elements and discriminatory assumptions. Let’s allow for an evolution and opening in our conversations about race that go beyond black and white, and that importantly, does not pit oppressed communities, or any communities for that matter, against each other.

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