Diversity brings excellence to science, the workplace and other human endeavors, as research is showing. And the media plays a crucial role in shaping how society views its members, second perhaps only to the entertainment industry in such influence. So how we in the media business express the news could set back efforts for a more innovative and productive society.
Blunders that affect the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community get an airing each summer during the national convention of the Asian American Journalists Association, a core mission of which is media watch. I’m a longtime member of AAJA (currently, I am the president of the New York chapter), and over the years, I’ve seen many cases of poor judgment in newsrooms that leave me scratching my head as to how those mistakes occurred. At the same time, they serve as reminders of how easy it is to misstep.
By “blunder,” I’m referring to representations that disparage, insult or stereotype a group, however unintentional. For the Asian-American community, the classic case study comes from 1998, during the Winter Olympics. In the women’s figure-skating final, favorite Michelle Kwan was beaten by the relative newcomer Tara Lapinski. On its website, MSNBC ran the headline, “American Beats Kwan.” The problem, of course, is that both women hail from the U.S.; the headline suggests that Kwan, who is of Chinese descent, is not American. Sadly, it embodied and extended a persistent view in the U.S. that an Asian appearance is foreign. To its credit, MSNBC quickly removed the headline, apologized and took steps to prevent such errors.
More obviously insensitive (and occasionally downright racist) coverage took place in 2012, when pro basketball star Jeremy Lin, then of the New York Knicks, first burst onto the scene. In attempts to be clever, many headline writers and columnists invoked stereotypes to describe Lin, whose background is a rarity in that sport. The rarity in this case is Lin’s being an Asian-American–of which there have been four in the NBA–as opposed to his being a graduate of Harvard University–of which there have been only three in the NBA. One particularly egregious online headline, which contained an outright slur, led to the firing of an ESPN employee. AAJA issued an advisory containing guidelines on how outlets should cover Lin.
Sportswriters aren’t the only ones to step in it, of course. General and breaking news have seen its share of bungles. Among the most recent: Oakland station KTVU-TV’s on-air reading of prank, Chinese-sounding names for the pilots of the crashed Asiana Airlines flight 214 in 2013. The competitive urge to beat other outlets and break news evidently led to some damn poor fact-checking and mystifying lapses in judgment; even spoken in your own head, the joke names sound too much like “something’s wrong” and “we’re too low.” The gaffe, and investigations by KTVU, AAJA and others, led to a staff shake-up.
A diverse newsroom would not necessarily have prevented mistakes such as KTVU’s. But newsroom diversity can certainly cut the risk if it’s properly constructed and allowed to flourish. Minorities make up about 13 percent of the newsroom, according to the 2013 census by the American Society of News Editors–smaller than the 22 percent that constitute the U.S. population as a whole.
I’ve worked in science journalism most of my professional career, and I’m happy to say I have not encountered similar glaring gaffes. (The problems tend to more subtle and complex, especially when it comes to conclusions based on population genetics.) But maybe it’s a volume game: there’s just less coverage of science compared with politics, sports or business. If that’s true, then it will pay to keep a watchful eye.