Having more diverse newsrooms won’t always prevent errors like KTVU’s, but it would help

Over the past week, there’s been a litany of news stories about the July 6 crash of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco. Many of the reports, in print and broadcast, captured the harrowing drama that unfolded during and after the ill-fated landing.

We at the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) braced ourselves for the inevitable stories that conjure stereotypes of Asian Americans. Some of the news coverage made us cringe or left us downright angry.

The events of the past week have also underscored the importance of newsroom diversity. We have spent much of our time in recent days highlighting our concerns about inaccurate, misleading or insensitive news coverage.

A day after the crash, the Chicago Sun-Times published a front-page headline that some readers perceived as an allusion to the oft-employed stereotype of Asian accents. The paper’s publisher later apologized and said there was no malicious intent.

A few days later, several news outlets speculated about how South Korea’s hierarchical culture might have played a role in the crash. Other news media rightly raised skepticism over that assertion.

The crash coverage turned surreal on Friday, when San Francisco Bay Area station KTVU committed an egregious gaffe during its noon newscast. The station rushed on air with what it thought were the names of the four pilots of the Asiana flight. An accompanying graphic listed the names, each pronounced by anchor Tori Campbell during the broadcast. Not until after the segment did the station realize it had been punked into broadcasting made-up, Asian-sounding names that could only be interpreted as slurs.

The National Transportation Safety Board contributed to the hoax when a summer intern erroneously, and without apparent authorization, confirmed the fake names before KTVU’s broadcast.

To its credit, KTVU rightly understood the gravity of its errors and immediately apologized. But in the midst of covering KTVU’s blunder, other news outlets repeated the same slurs broadcast by KTVU and thereby compounded the damage. (The Associated Press and NPR, among other news organizations, chose not to repeat the offensive names. AAJA also choose not to do so. Poynter.org published them initially and then later Friday evening decided to link to a video of the broadcast instead.)

Let’s be clear: Making up Asian names or mimicking foreign accents are not innocent forms of satire. Doing so demeans and hurts. We shouldn’t have to explain why mocking names, Asian or otherwise, is inappropriate.

Through its MediaWatch program, AAJA raised concerns about the Sun-Times headline, the suggestion that culture is to blame for the crash, and the mockery of the pilots’ names.

Over the years, AAJA has issued a spate of similar concerns. Last year, we warned about inappropriate language in the coverage of basketball player Jeremy Lin. More recently, we responded to an appalling column on Vietnam by former New York Times reporter Joel Brinkley.

Sadly, our communities continue to be subjected to unfair and disparaging coverage. These incidents only remind us that our newsrooms continue to lack the diversity that is more reflective of the communities we serve.

According to the American Society of News Editors’ latest census, journalists of color represent less than 13 percent of the country’s newsroom employees. The disturbing disparity is clearer when put in the context of the country’s growing minority population, which now accounts for more than one-third of the U.S. population.

Asian Americans represent just a sliver of the country’s population — about 6 percent — but that share is growing faster than any other race, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In contrast, the ASNE’s latest newsroom census shows Asian Americans comprising just 3.1 percent of newsroom staffing across the country.

Improved diversity among all ranks in our newsrooms — from reporters and producers to editors and managers — would help our industry improve its coverage of all our communities and increase the likelihood of preventing mistakes or inaccurate facts from being published or broadcast. Having more Asians in newsrooms wouldn’t necessarily prevent all offensive errors like the one at KTVU, but it would help.

Of course, newsroom diversity is only part of the solution. Regular engagement with neighborhood leaders would also help. So would expanding source lists to reflect the diversity of our communities.

The responsibility is shared among all of us — regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation — to fairly and accurately report about our communities. It’s an underlying principle of the Asian American Journalists Association — and the foundation of our collective mission as journalists.

Editor’s Note: Paul Cheung (@pcheung630) is the Global Interactive Editor at the Associated Press, and Bobby Caina Calvan (@CalvanBobby) is a Washington-based freelance writer and a former staff reporter at the Boston Globe and the Sacramento Bee.

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  • rosshawkes

    This is being overthought somewhat – this isn’t about diversity in newsrooms, it’s about checking (or a lack of).

  • Robert Knilands

    I did wonder if anyone at AAJA or Poynter even bothered to check the numbers in those two newsrooms. The overall U.S. number is presented, but that’s not proof of anything in those specific cases.
    Usually it’s good to have facts before drawing a conclusion. Well, maybe next time.

  • mcm31

    I suspect that lack of diversity is only part of the issue.KTVU is a very diverse organization in a very diverse city, Oakland, CA.

    I cannot help but wonder how often it is that no one reads the copy. A simple reading would have made the racist “joke” obvious. That TV journalists both on camera and behind it do not read, but only mouth words is distressing. It means no one in the office understands what is coming out of their mouths or from their fingertips.

  • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

    Too many newsrooms think of diversity as doing someone a favor. Hope this gets wide circulation.

  • Robert Knilands

    So get more sensible people. But playing this not-too-subtle game of calling for quotas without using the word is unprofessional, cowardly, and exactly the kind of crap Poynter has been shoveling for far too long.
    AAJA has its own site and agenda. Simply giving the group a platform to call for quotas without using the word and without any sort of rebuttal is unnecessary. Was Tom Huang too busy to roll out the same repetitive, tired schtick as usual?
    It has to be said, too, that simply having “diversity” is not a solution. One of the people who would qualify under the “diversity” banner was front and center in the Lin situation a year ago. But looking at things like that requires thought and work. It’s easier and lazier to take the Poynter/AAJA route and simply call for racial quotas in hiring.

  • KTA

    Maybe there just aren’t enough sensible people in the newsrooms who know any better. There’s a good chance that people at the Sun-Times and KTVU, like most of America, simply didn’t know the words, phrases, and allusions that offend Asian folks. That was basically a constant during the coverage of Jeremy Lin last year; and I tend to think most major publications here still don’t know how to cover stories centered around Asians (and Asian-Americans) properly.

  • Robert Knilands

    No, that “solution” comes from the tech evangelists and new wavers.

  • steve white

    by more diverse i thought you were going to say younger

  • Robert Knilands

    Seems to me the solution would be to have more people who are sensible enough to say: “Hey, I don’t think this is a great idea.”
    Just calling for more people of a certain race sounds like the quota approach — without using the word, of course.
    Identities over ideas — another quickie solution from another short-sighted organization with goals other than good journalism. The AAJA needs fewer A’s and more F’s in its name.