Covering Anti-Asian Hate

Special Edition

Dear readers,

I am Jin Ding, co-founder of Chinese Storytellers and a board member of Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).

On Tuesday evening, March 16, a man shot and killed eight people in Atlanta, six of which were Asian women. At first, a lot of media called these Asian-owned spas “massage parlors,” despite the essential context of the current rise in attacks on Asian Americans. The decision reflects long-standing biases in news coverage of marginalized communities that stem from racism and sexism. 

Since the shooting, I’ve heard from a lot of Asian American journalists: broadcasters who had the necessary language skills and cultural competency but were not assigned to cover the shooting; Asian writers who were told “are you sure your bias won’t show if you cover the topic” and “you might be too emotionally invested to cover this.” As someone who’s worked on improving diversity, equity and inclusion in the media workspace for six years, I see a parallel between Asian journalists today and Black journalists after George Floyd’s death. We are still invisible, often the only Asian in our entire newsroom, and talked down to. 

I also had a candid conversation with a media executive at a D.C.-based outlet about their coverage on U.S.-China tensions, and how by excluding proper context, their China coverage could have a butterfly effect that leads to anti-Asian violence. We talked about how to include more Chinese writers in the newsroom to help make better, more nuanced coverage. An overdue media reckoning on Asian American and Pacific Islander issues arrived 39 years after Vincent Chin’s death. For the first time, I felt seen.

During the week of the tragedy, I broke into tears almost every day when I read the news or heard Asian journalists share their experiences. But we chose resilience over silence. And we chose to better our industries, take care of ourselves and each other. 

In this special issue, we want to further our conversation about how the media covered the Atlanta shootings and how this affects us. 

Take good care, 
Jin Ding

(New Yorkers rallied against anti-Asian hate on March 19, 2021. Credit: Xinyan Yu)

Chinese Storytellers is an inclusive community of media professionals. This newsletter features some members’ personal testimonies and opinions, which do not speak for the community as a whole.

Wilfred Chan, a New York-based contributing writer to The Nation, formerly a journalist in Hong Kong, worries the current discourse oversimplifies what it’s like to be Asian in the U.S. 

In the past months, there have been multiple violent attacks on Asians within two blocks of my Chinatown apartment. Last week, I volunteered as a Chinese interpreter at a local vaccination site. As I filled out their forms, residents told me heartbreaking stories about getting harassed, robbed, and spat on in recent months. I wonder if and when it will be my turn. 

It’s also surreal to experience this as a journalist. Some people I’ve spoken to since the Atlanta attacks assumed I must be working on a piece about it, but I’ve been grieving while turning down editors’ requests.The current discourse is already at a fever pitch — I don’t think the world needs another “hot take” on Actually, The Killings Were Caused by [X].

Violence has a way of giving weight to abstractions like ethnicity. The national rallying of the Asian community after the shootings is a testament to that. But victimhood is a thin kind of solidarity. I worry the spectacle around anti-Asian violence glosses over the inequalities between Asians; that the rush to defend Asian identity means we lose space for ambivalence and reflection. I worry about what stories I’ll be asked to write in the future. I still worry each time I walk out the door.

Jeong Park, a Korean American reporter at The Sacramento Bee in California, says his viral Twitter thread on how Korean-language media covered the shootings took a toll on his own wellness. 

When I went to bed last Tuesday, I had known what happened in Atlanta, but I hadn’t thought too much of it. Living in the United States can sadly make you numb to mass shootings. But by Wednesday morning, more details emerged. We can debate over whether the shooting can legally be categorized as a hate crime, but the trauma and pain the event inflicted on the Asian American community were clear, especially following weeks of anti-Asian crimes.

I tried to cope through reporting. While covering California’s economy for my day job, I aggregated the Korean-language media’s coverage of the shooting, which initially gave more voice to the eyewitnesses and victims than the mainstream media had done. But just like many of you, I confess that my coping mechanism had left me exhausted by the end of last week. I don’t know where to go from here. We as journalists believe what we do can make a difference, but when that belief is not fulfilled, when we see incident after incident against our community, it can make us feel hopeless.

Ultimately, we may not stop the violence against our community, our elders, but if our work can make one person think differently, perhaps that’s what matters in the end. So, we push forward. People often call journalists cynics, but in a sense, we are powered by optimism, however fruitless it may seem.

(Credit: Xinyan Yu)

Rui Zhong, an analyst at the Wilson Center, says centering the discussion about anti-Asian racism on the Chinese government misses an important point.

The March 17, 2021 killings capped off a very difficult year for Asian diasporas in America. Before a single bullet was fired into Atlanta-area spas, suspicions of Asian enclaves spreading COVID-19 have slowed business and sparked a spate of physical assaults and verbal confrontations against the Asian population in the United States. 

Foreign policy scholars have taken two routes to unpack these incidents. Some think that America’s China policy is a key contributor to how the broader Asian community is treated in America and the competition with China has fueled the categorization of people who may look Chinese as the new yellow peril. The other prominent idea is that the China-U.S. competition happens regardless of racism, or perhaps in parallel to it, and because China’s government is opportunistic, swerving America’s foreign policy would be capitulation. 

These schools of thought both miss one key point: 

Around the United States, Asian Americans are calling each others’ families in order to assess strategies to keep them safe. Businesses with predominantly Asian workforce, including New York’s iconic chain of Xi’an Famous Foods stores, are closing earlier to allow employees to go home early in fear of staff getting beaten on the street at night. Absent from these conversations over personal safety concerns is the government of the People’s Republic of China, because the government is not put at the forefront of risk from Sinophobia, Asians in the U.S. are. By centering the Chinese government and the New Cold War instead of communities in desperate need of recovery, time and resources are taken away from those who are in most dire need to support.

Yiwen Lu, a Chicago-based student journalist and a board member of the Chicago chapter of AAJA, argues local news need to diversify its sources. 

Being Asian in the U.S. today is like being forever foreign.

The day after the Atlanta shootings on March 17, AAJA’s Chicago chapter received a complaint regarding a column published in the Chicago Sun-Times. The columnist wrote that he talked with Asian fishermen without including a word of what they said, and referred to a source he took to be Vietnamese as “a little guy.” What struck me the most was how the newsroom failed to see why this language is problematic. The invisibility of AAPI people in news coverage is a both a natural extension of and perpetuates our invisibility in the American society. When storytellers don’t make the effort to diversify our sources and provide adequate context, we run the risk of robbing AAPI people of their agency and depicting all Asians as perpetual outsiders. 

Last summer, I reported on Chicago’s Chinatown. What I found was a complex story about growing tensions between community leaders, developers and Chinatown’s business community. But this story was missing from the city’s biggest news outlets, which called it “the only growing Chinatown in the U.S.” A few months ago, after the tragic shooting of a Chinese international student, the most visible arguments came from student advocates who supported the disbanding of private campus police. But after I talked to international student groups, I found a radically different perspective: they were largely in support of increasing law enforcement presence on campus. Including voices like these in local reporting helps the audience get a more complete picture of what is happening in their community.

Kitty Hu, a New York-based independent filmmaker and journalist, says mainstream media’s biased coverage of the Asian American struggle in the U.S. is systemic.

Like many, I woke up on that Wednesday morning feeling afraid. 

Anti-Asian violence is not new. It is woven throughout this nation’s foundation and its long history of xenophobic, racist policies against Asian Americans. On a Zoom call with local and national Asian leaders and organizers that morning, I heard repeated calls to understand the violence as one that is deeply racist and gendered, impacting particularly immigrant, working class Asian women. 

We cannot let mainstream media and politicians shape the narrative for our communities. As storytellers, journalists, and culture-shapers, we must write about this violence in the larger context of racist, misogynistic, imperialist, and xenophobic systems that specifically target and harm Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, especially women, the elderly, and working class people. 

Writer: Jin Ding; Editor: Wufei Yu; Copy Editor: Isabelle Niu

Chinese Storytellers is a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry. Follow us @CNStorytellers. Questions? Suggestions? Comments? Tell us.