Asian Americans deserve more than tokenization from the media

Protesters gather by City Hall in New York, NY on March 27, 2021 in reaction to anti-Asian hate and the recent Atlanta spa shooting. (Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In this moment of sudden interest in the Asian American community, what’s most frustrating to me is exactly this: the sudden interest.

For over a year, Asian American media, activists and thought leaders have been talking about the rise of anti-Asian hate. As early as February 2020, before the pandemic was even declared, friends talked of slurs tossed at them when they threw out their garbage, threatening notes left on their property. People were afraid to go shopping with masks on, lest they be attacked. Chinese restaurants were suffering, some vandalized. News and videos circulated about a woman who’d had acid tossed on her, of a family that had been stabbed. These latter two more shocking incidents were covered by mainstream media, but there seemed to be a lack of acknowledgement of the disturbing trend of increased anti-Asian acts. 

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From the beginning, the media providing the most information were Asian American-focused. The website NextShark circulated what felt like an unending number of pieces on hate crimes. NBC News’ Asian America vertical was one of the few major news outlets consistently covering issues facing Asian Americans as a result of the pandemic. San Francisco ABC7 anchor Dion Lim began sharing stories of violent acts targeting Asian Americans as early as February on social media.  

“While we are not supposed to, as journalists, involve ourselves too much in the story,” Lim wrote below an Instagram post where she shared a video of an elderly Asian man being attacked, “but in this case I feel okay saying we need to share and talk about these issues so change is made in our communities.” In a follow-up post updating her followers on a GoFundMe for the man, she said that many people had messaged her with accounts of other incidents. “I know this is the only way to raise awareness and make change. Using my platform,” she wrote. 

At the same time, there were uplifting stories of neighbors in Koreatown and Chinatown coming together to help the elderly during the pandemic, protecting storefronts or crowdfunding for businesses that had been maligned or vandalized. These stories also didn’t make it onto the radar of most large outlets, though some, including my Asian American magazine, Hyphen, did give some of them space, believing that it was important to highlight not just the ways Asian Americans had been victimized, but also to show a fuller picture of how the community was reacting. 

“Despite over a year of ongoing anti-Asian sentiment… mainstream media had not given much thought to covering Asian Americans.”

In response to the uptick of hate incidents, Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting center formed by the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University, was created for Asian Americans to self-report incidents. The collection of this data marked the first time the surge in anti-Asian sentiment that we all felt could be quantified. This hard data, combined with the spotlight that journalists such as Lim and other community leaders had given to the growing problem, pushed big media outlets to finally give major coverage to the alarming trend.  

For a brief moment, the media seemed interested in the story, though liberal media just as often seemed more interested to cover it within the lens of then-President Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric. When Asian American reporters were visible, it was because they became part of the story, as CBS News reporter Weijia Jiang did in May 2020 when President Trump told her “Ask China” in response to a question she asked about his handling of the pandemic. 

And then just as quickly, the news cycle moved on. 

Last month, when a white shooter killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, at three Atlanta-area spas, mainstream media was reignited, suddenly interested not only in the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes, but in the context surrounding them too. Opinion pieces by Asian American thought leaders popped up across national media. My newsfeeds were filled with primers on the history of Asian American racism and the sexualization of Asian American women, offering personal experiences of anti-Asian racism and positioning the shootings in context of the recent rise in anti-Asian sentiments. Some of my more visible Asian American acquaintances mentioned that they were experiencing fatigue after being asked repeatedly by media outlets to write pieces or comment on what was occurring. 

At the same time, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) tweeted: “Since the shootings, we have heard some deeply concerning problems in newsrooms across the country, including in Atlanta: ‘Are you sure your bias won’t show if you cover the Atlanta shootings?’” Despite Asian American reporters’ greater cultural competency, intimate understanding of the community, and, in some cases, second-language skills, many were not being assigned to cover the shootings despite volunteering to do so. 

Perhaps as a result, mainstream media floundered in its coverage of the shooting. For many days, details surrounding the shooting remained spotty in English-language media and focused on information given by law enforcement, even as Korean-language media reported eyewitness accounts and details of the victims, gleaned from reportage within the Korean American community. 

A few days later, AAJA issued a set of guidelines on how to cover the shootings and anti-Asian hate incidents at large, including a spelling and pronunciation guide for the names of the victims, preferred language when referring to the spas, biases newsrooms should be mindful of and ways to empower Asian American journalists and to diversify their sources. For me — and I’m guessing many Asian American journalists — the guidelines were intuitive and common sense. But it was clear they were not written for us; they were written for the white-dominated leadership of national newsrooms. 

When the AAJA website crashed from high volume traffic, it became apparent that, despite over a year of ongoing anti-Asian sentiment and violence, up until that point, mainstream media had not given much thought to how to respectfully and intentionally cover what was happening among Asian American communities.  

This is what frustrates me: the issues that have plagued Asian Americans have been happening this whole time — and even before the pandemic — but the sudden interest makes it seem like it’s new. Because of a lack of visibility in mainstream media, this surge in coverage requires context, and there is a need, suddenly, to educate and make legible a community that is often painted as illegible and foreign, a responsibility that falls on Asian Americans writers, thinkers, and activists. And yet, at the same turn, Asian Americans journalists are suspected of being unable to remain objective. It feels like a kind of tokenization, as if the mainstream media should be allowed to pick and choose when they allow an Asian American’s experiences to inform their work. 

If newsrooms truly want to cover the Asian American community responsibly, they can’t drop in like tourists. They should be covering the issues that face the community on an ongoing basis, so that the public views Asian Americans as an integral part of the fabric of America, so that context is not needed every time. 

I think of CBS’s Jiang, who, a few months ago, ahead of the Atlanta shootings, sat in on a White House press conference with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. While the horrific murder of those six women had yet to occur, there had been an increasing number of attacks on elderly Asian Americans caught on camera, an accumulation that alarmed and distressed many within the community. Because of her sensitivity to what was happening among the Asian American community — her community — she asked Psaki what President Joe Biden was doing about the rise in anti-Asian hate. Her pulse on the concerns within the community combined with her access meant she was able to bring this to the attention of the White House and make sure it remained part of the conversation. 

I hope that the current interest by mainstream media isn’t a passing news cycle, but one committed to finally giving greater visibility to the Asian American community and bringing us into the national conversation, even when no one has been senselessly murdered. Newsrooms should lean on the wealth of experience and knowledge of its Asian American colleagues. They are attuned to the concerns that no one else in mainstream media is sharing or noticing; they often may have access to the stories that haven’t been told or intuition for the questions that haven’t been asked. They will be able to lead with empathy and garner trust from the community, even as they offer a rigorous accounting of events. 

Objectivity in journalism doesn’t mean to be dispassionate; in fact, the strongest reporting often requires the greatest care and concern, a true investment in faithfully representing a story. Asian American members of the media are invested. They have been invested, and will remain invested in the coming months and years. For a community that seeks documentation, advocacy and visibility, this has made all the difference.