By Pati Navalta
On Feb. 24, an elderly Asian man collecting cans in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood was assaulted, humiliated and reduced to tears. During the incident, one of the attackers yelled, “I hate Asians!” It didn’t take long for the video to go viral, prompting KGO-TV/ABC7 News anchor and reporter Dion Lim to take action. While the motive of the attack is unclear, it came at a time when there was a rise in anti-Asian sentiment due to COVID-19. Since then, Lim has been at the forefront of covering the pandemic’s impact on the Bay Area’s Asian American community. She helped spark several town halls about coronavirus and race at her station and has appeared on national news shows to discuss her coverage.
The fact that Lim is Asian American and was bringing her own background into the story was something new for her, and went against the traditional rules of journalism. But with the ubiquity of social media and disturbing videos, such as the killing of George Floyd, going viral and creating strong reactions from viewers, we are seeing a growing number of journalists contextualize and humanize news by bringing their own stories to the fore. This has posed both benefits and challenges for reporters at a time when racial tensions are running high.
“It’s unusual for a reporter to take a high-profile or active role advocating for her own ethnic group, and that’s newsworthy and where the world is headed,” said Andrew Heyward, former CBS news president and senior research professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. “It’s new territory and it’s exciting. In the past it would be considered by very traditional rules of TV news as a breach of objectivity. How can she be objective? Why should we trust what she has to say? The answer is transparency. She’s out front reporting on what she believes, but she still has to back it with facts. It’s a different way of approaching news. It gives reporters more freedom to be themselves, and in the world of social media it makes more sense.”
While much of the feedback has been positive, Lim says she has also faced a backlash from viewers, including from her own mother, who asked her to stop reporting on anti-Asian sentiment, which she detailed in an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle.
“I think as journalists, we’re always told to be unbiased and not to inject our own personal stories into our reporting,” Lim said in a Race and Coronavirus podcast. “I think now more than ever there’s a degree to where we have to do that, not only to compete, but in order to make the news compelling, in order to bring that unique perspective and in order to get people to truly understand and have the story be in context and resonate with them.”
Lim’s parents are immigrants, her mother from Taiwan, and her father from Hong Kong. Lim says she had to ignore her mom’s plea given the importance of the stories.
Still, her mother’s concerns were not unfounded. Asian American journalists covering the pandemic can sometimes find themselves on the receiving end of the racism they report on. When CBS reporter Weijia Jiang, who is of Chinese descent, asked President Donald Trump during a press conferencewhy he repeatedly lauded his administration’s efforts to expand COVID-19 testing even though the number of cases in the country has continued to increase, he responded by telling her to “ask China.” Jiang, visibly shocked and upset, asked the president why his response was specifically directed toward her. He ended the press conference abruptly without answering.
“I felt nauseous,” said Lim. “Because it’s happened again. This particular reporter is a friend of mine … and she has been the target of President Trump multiple times. I know that there has been criticism saying that her question back was biased or had some kind of personal angle to it, but let me say this, as a human, when you’re bullied, you cannot tolerate it, whether you’re a journalist, whether you’re a nurse or the guy who delivers food. It is a basic human decency issue and I think she handled it beautifully and honestly.”
Locally, Lim has been criticized for focusing too much on racism against Asian Americans. Some of the criticism has come from African American viewers who say black communities have endured far worse, for far longer.
“I think you have to listen to all members of the community and make appropriate editorial judgment,” said Heyward. “It’s not either or, that you can only cover racism against one group. If they were only doing stories about one group and not the other that would be an issue, but I think these stories are valid and a disturbing aspect of the pandemic and worthy of attention.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively magnified racial disparities across the country. According to Heyward, these inequities are what further fueled the global protests we’re seeing today over the killing of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in Minneapolis after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.
“I think the data shows the severity of the disproportionate impact on communities of color. Once that started emerging, the media gave it a lot of attention,” he said. “The stats are very compelling, and it’s become a major angle in the story. It’s certainly one of the factors that is affecting the size and emotion of current protests in the wake of George Floyd killing. That horrible tragedy on the heels of a pandemic that disproportionately affects blacks has added to the intensity and size of the protests.”
For Lim, this is what news is all about — to raise awareness, start a dialogue and spark action, even if that means becoming part of the story.
“My viewers have been saying, ‘Since when have you gotten so raged up about something so heavy?’ or ‘Dion, why don’t you tackle more African American issues? You’re so biased.’ No, that’s not the case. You’re just not used to seeing me in this light, and it’s fine,” she said. “We need somebody to be more vocal like this, because I think there are also a lot of people in the industry who still subscribe to ‘let’s just tell the story and, and that’s it.’ And we can’t do that anymore. I just want to make sure that my audience sees the authentic me. That’s part of me now, being that voice, that voice piece for our community.”
Why we’re doing this, and why diversity in newsrooms matters
By Levi Sumagaysay
As we discuss media coverage of this pandemic, it’s only fitting that we talk about ourselves. We started Race and Coronavirus to focus on the effects of the coronavirus crisis on minorities and immigrants. As Asian American journalists who worked for mainstream media publications for years, we know their limitations. Examining an unprecedented crisis, with all its facets and consequences, solely through the lens of race won’t be possible for journalists who may want to do so. Additionally, because race makes so many journalists uncomfortable, some of them may not want to do so. And from what we’ve learned since we launched a month ago, journalists who do can expect negative repercussions.
There have been news stories addressing race and coronavirus. But many more stories won’t be told if journalists don’t make a conscious decision to tell them, and that may depend not only on their biases but those of their editors and advertisers. The media is overwhelmingly white: 77% of employees across all U.S. newsrooms — print, TV and online — are non-Hispanic whites. That doesn’t mean they can’t tell stories about black and brown people. Some of them do, and they do it well. But certain angles may not occur to them, or they may not catch nuances that minority journalists would. And some black and brown people may not trust or want to talk with them.
In the wake of the protests over racism, this nation is doing some soul-searching and examining some age-old norms, including the journalistic goal of objectivity, which has traditionally been determined by white newsroom bosses. What has happened in the past several years, especially as racial tensions have resurfaced, is that in trying to adhere to objectivity at all costs, the mainstream media has given too much importance to telling both sides when one side is clearly racist or lying.
False equivalence is a big part of how we got to this point in our country. Neutrality gave way to normalization, and we are worse for it.
Those examples make up just a fraction of the reasons diversity in newsrooms is so important — whether it’s during a deadly global pandemic in which minorities are dying at a rate not proportional to their population, or during the painful aftermath of yet another police killing of a black man. Both problems are rooted in the racism and inequality that go back to the founding of this nation.
Think of the recent media coverage of the protests over the death of George Floyd and the ongoing police brutality in this country — another pandemic that disproportionately affects black and brown people. How much of the coverage has pointed out the new instances of police brutality occurring at those very protests? How many images and videos of looters are we bombarded with that don’t give equal weight to the context in which all of it is happening?
As for the negative reactions we’ve received from friends, family and the public for shining a light on the racial disparities that are at the root of the disproportionate amount of minorities being affected by COVID-19, they range from a deafening silence to hostility and even a threat on our Facebook page. We’ve been told that constantly pointing out those disparities is tiresome, that we are too emotional, that we are being divisive.
Imagine having your loved ones die from COVID-19 because they lacked access to health care, sick leave, a way to isolate from their families or the ability to work from home. Now is not the time for us to throw our hands up and say “oh well, that’s just the way it is.” Stories help solve problems. They cause action. They help change minds, hearts and policies. As storytellers, we refuse to shrug off racial and socioeconomic disparities as inevitable. We want to talk about how to get rid of them.
It is unfortunate that we have to try to justify caring about the health of other human beings, so here’s something that even the least empathetic may understand: Especially during this pandemic, when one of us gets sick, it endangers the rest of us. Minorities and immigrants disproportionately do essential work that includes growing, serving and delivering our food, driving our buses, taking care of our kids and of the sick.
Ignoring racism won’t make it go away. And even the most well-meaning among us may be guilty of implicit biases. Like Dr. David Carlisle of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science said on our podcast last week, “the very fact that somebody is uncomfortable talking about racism … is in fact racism itself.”
The bright side
Jack Dorsey’s ‘Small Grants’ gives big to Kaepernick
By Pati Navalta
Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who lost his job and has been treated as a political pariah for kneeling in protest of racial injustice during the national anthem at football games in 2016, is now seeing a windfall of donations to his Know Your Rights Camp from entertainers, corporations and tech CEOs, including The Weeknd ($200,000), Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian ($1 million), and Beats by Dre and Apple (undisclosed amount). All the donations were made following the recent police killing of George Floyd and two weeks of protests demanding justice, police reform and equality.
Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey is the latest to add his name to the growing list, with a donation of $3 million to the organization established by Kaepernick to empower people of color. The donation is being disbursed through Dorsey’s Small Grants fund, under which he has pledged to give $1 billion to COVID-19 relief and other causes using his stock equity in Square. All disbursements and recipients are being tracked in a public spreadsheet.
Know Your Rights Camp’s mission is to “advance the liberation and well-being of Black and Brown communities through education, self-empowerment, mass-mobilization and the creation of new systems that elevate the next generation of change leaders,” according to its website. Included in the organization’s priority issues is COVID-19 and its impact on communities of color in regard to housing, employment, transportation, medical racism, incarceration and health.
“Black and brown communities are being disproportionately devastated by COVID-19 because of hundreds of years of structural racism,” said Kaepernick in a video posted on the organization’s website.
Dorsey tweeted that the donation would help “to advance the liberation and well-being of Black and Brown communities through education, self-empowerment, mass-mobilization to elevate the next generation of change leaders.”
We discuss the effects of the coronavirus crisis on small businesses, especially those owned by minorities and immigrants.
* This story was originally published by Race and Coronavirus (raceandcoronavirus.com), a newsletter and podcast dedicated to covering issues related to the intersection of race and the global pandemic. Please contact email@example.com for more information.