Like many businesses, newsrooms have been forced to cut back their staffs during the coronavirus pandemic, shrinking the number of journalists of color covering the crisis. Many worry that, as the coronavirus spreads disproportionately across the country, hitting communities of color the hardest, the lack of diversity in journalism’s ranks is reflected in news reporting.
In the early days of the outbreak, for example, news organizations published generic photos of Chinatown neighborhoods and masked Asian people with stories about the coronavirus pandemic, which critics said fueled xenophobic ideas about who carried the disease.
“How can the industry adequately report on communities in a fair manner, while combating implicit bias, when the majority of our reporters don’t come from these communities and don’t understand the complex and nuanced behaviors and issues stemming from these communities?” said Tauhid Chappell, a board member with the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
Since the pandemic hit, an estimated 36,000 employees of media companies have either been cut or had their pay reduced, according to The New York Times. This downward trend is nothing new for newspapers, which lost half their newsroom staff from 2008 to 2019, according to the Pew Research Center.
And with this exit also goes diversity, which retired newspaper editor Gregory Moore calls the “whitening of the media.”
“It’s been historically true that the first thing to lose in an economic downturn, or situations with staff cuts, is diversity,” said Moore, the former editor of The Denver Post, where he was among 11 African American top editors at daily newspapers when he stepped down in 2016.
While 60% of Americans are non-Hispanic white, according to the Census Bureau, a diversity survey by the News Leaders Association found 81% of print newsroom leaders are white, along with 78% of staffers. Doris Truong, the Poynter Institute’s director of training and diversity, notes that less than a quarter of the 1,883 news organizations targeted by the self-reported survey responded. And other media companies, like broadcast and digital outlets, were not included in the survey.
“It’s particularly important to look at who is leading newsrooms,” said Truong. “The leadership still trends toward white and male.”
The lack of diversity was reflected in some coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Photos of Asian American pedestrians in masks have sparked backlash when local and national newsrooms used them to illustrate unrelated stories about the virus, reinforcing stereotypes that one racial group is responsible for spreading the disease.
In February, the San Jose Mercury News issued a mea culpa for publishing a front-page photograph of a masked maintenance worker in San Francisco’s Chinatown under the bold headline “First coronavirus case in Bay Area confirmed” — though that case was reported 50 miles away in Santa Clara County.
Forbes and The New York Times also were chided on social media for using photos of Asian people in masks to illustrate coronavirus stories. Both outlets changed the criticized photos.
In March, the New York Post tweeted a photo of an Asian man in Flushing, Queens, with a link to its story about the first confirmed case in New York City — a Manhattan woman who contracted coronavirus in Iran.
Critics screenshotted the original photos and shared them on Twitter, noting that not only was racism being spread, but also distrust in the media organizations themselves. The posts included the hashtag #fakenews.
“Even as the crisis was getting underway, there was a lot of misinformation spreading around, using images of Chinatown to kind of stand in for China,” Truong said.
Using stock images of Asian Americans “when the story had nothing to do with Asian Americans” can contribute to fears about patronizing Asian-owned businesses, said John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. His group worked with other Asian organizations to start a response network that tracks racist incidents during the outbreak and found 2,000 in the past two months.
To better reflect communities of color in news reporting, Chappell used a Twitter call-out to create a list of diverse experts on the pandemic.
“It’s 2020. There’s literally no excuse in the media’s ongoing lack of representation within the industry, and within its sourcing,” Chappell said.
This kind of list is particularly helpful to journalists on deadline, when “diversity of their sources may not be top of mind,” said Caroline Chen, a health-care reporter for ProPublica.
“There is a tendency for the media to repeatedly go to the same experts over and over again. I see a lot of familiar names in the stories I read, and I certainly call those folks, too,” said Chen, who collaborated with Chappell to create the expert list. “To some degree, that is warranted. Those experts are called upon because they are truly knowledgeable in their field. But more often than not, I would say the principal investigators of studies, directors of research labs, heads of medical departments, etc., are male and white.”
To find more diverse sources, Chen asks the people she interviews for recommendations. She said she also works on diversifying her source list on Saturday mornings, so she’s not scrambling to find folks on weekdays.
“I think it’s our job as journalists to recognize that in a complicated and evolving situation like the coronavirus pandemic, that there’s no such thing as a uniform experience for Americans as a whole, or people in an entire state,” Chen said. “Things like income, Zip code, preexisting health conditions, all which can be tangled up together with race, are critical factors in affecting the experience one has during this time.”
News media legitimizes the experiences it covers, said Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of global digital media at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, so members of communities that are absent or misrepresented can suffer real-life consequences.
“It’s a pattern of erasure,” Ong said. “In a way, you’re really forced now to wear some blinders to ignore all of these other experiences. And I think that’s disappointing for us as Asians. It’s a common experience to always be overlooked.”