We’re missing a lot in covering NC’s AAPI communities: Hear how that can change

News has a short attention span, but a recent panel turned into a forward-looking, insight-rich session showing the way for North Carolina media to build better long-term coverage of Asian American and Pacific Islander people — and support AAPI journalists — to make and deepen connections in our increasingly diverse state.

That was the NC Local News Workshop’s aim in bringing together five journalists and a community leader on May 14: To look beyond the immediate. We wanted to learn from the journalism discussion that followed the murders of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta, amid new attention to the reality of anti-Asian violence and rhetoric as an ongoing reality.

I hope you will watch it for yourself, because no summary is as good as hearing these panelists’ insights in their own voices and words, led by WUNC host Anita Rao. We were joined by Chavi Khanna Koneru, cofounder and executive director of NC Asian Americans Together; WRAL-TV anchor Renee Chou; News & Observer reporters Julian Shen-Berro and Ashad Hajela; and Waliya Lari, a former WRAL executive producer who now is head of programs and partnership for the Asian American Journalists Association, our cosponsor.

In North Carolina, where the diverse population of AAPI people represents one of the state’s fastest-growing groups, our panelists pointed out opportunities for better journalism that also helps newsrooms build relationships and audiences. Yet many newsrooms lack key resources for being able to cover these communities — language skills, relationships and sources — and don’t realize the gaps till they’re in the midst of a breaking news story.

Some takeaways:

Words and language matter

AAJA responded to the events of spring by publishing updated guidance for covering AAPI people and issues, an an audio pronunciation guide to the Atlanta victims’ name, and additional resources for understanding and reporting accurately.

Waliya Lari AAJA
Waliya Lari

Yet mistakes often happen at that basic level, Lari noted: Mentioning a detail that is ordinary in one culture as noteworthy, for instance. She referred to a 2016 piece she wrote for RTDNA, “The Words of Journalists Have Power,” that offered descriptions of two men — one a suspected terrorist, and one her husband — with details such as having recently grown a beard, having emigrated from Afghanistan, and other elements often used in descriptions of terror suspects.

“We really have to decouple a lot of these identifiers and parts of very normal parts of identity that have been politicized and been assumed to mean something,” she said.

Lari added that another element of framing is “this idea of kind of otherizing cultures that are very much a part of American culture. So whether that’s a religious community or an ethnic community. When you report on it as, ‘Oh, gee whiz, did you hear about THIS?’’ it makes makes it seem foreign and as if it will always be foreign.”

“I’ve gotten told that I speak English really well. ‘How long have you been in the United States?’ with the assumption being you weren’t born here.“ — Chavi Khanna Koneru, NC Asian Americans Together

Koneru, from NCAAT, mentioned the term “China virus” that was used early on in the pandemic, and her concern of the phrase “Indian variant” in more recent coverage. “Words matter,” she said, and journalists should be “really, really aware of how your reporting impacts the way that other people see the issue.”

She also mentioned a basic element of good journalism — “learn how to pronounce people’s names correctly” — where news often fails with AAPI people. (A tried and true approach: when interviewing anyone, ask them to say and spell their name)

Chavi Khanna Koneru
Chavi Khanna Koneru

Koneru said she’d been surprised by racist language in some of the questions journalists asked as she offered information and guidance on NC’s Asian American communities: “Common questions I’ve gotten asked: ‘Where are you from?’ in a, ‘you know what I mean, where are you really from?’ (way). I’ve gotten told that I speak English really well. ‘How long have you been in the United States?’ with the assumption being you weren’t born here.

Because of those experiences, Koneru has turned down some interviews.

“I don’t like talking to someone and sharing what’s happening with our community when I feel disrespected by the questions,” she said.

Do your homework and get context right

AAJA, NC Asian Americans Together and other organizations offer a wealth of resources that can help journalists. The first step is recognizing the need to do research, not just interviews, to inform good journalism.

The N&O’s Ashad Hajela noted that good reporting seeks out experts and context as a first step, and reporting on culture as part of breaking news is no exception.

“I think all newsrooms probably need to take a moment to be able to have those discussions about how to approach communities, and to ask those questions, and to understand the nuances and the context of it.” — Renee Chou, WRAL

When Hajela and colleagues reported on the impact of the Atlanta violence and other recent incidents on North Carolina’s Asian American communities, they sought out people with historical and cultural perspective.

“It’s not like this kind of conversation is new; it’s been happening for years, Hajela said. “I think it’s really important to use the resources that are available and educate ourselves before going out.”

His colleague, Julian Shen-Berro, echoed the theme with an example: He reached out to a professor of Asian American studies at Duke University, who  offered useful context about the historic discrimination faced by the community.

“The story wouldn’t have been complete without” her input, Shen-Berro said. “It’s something we were able to do on the spot, but also a relationship it’s important to form.”

Renee Chou
Renee Chou

WRAL’s Renee Chou noted that other journalists in her newsroom also pitch stories about AAPI people, and often turn to her for help finding everyday people as sources.

“I end up usually pointing them to my networks… the different nonprofits that I’ve worked with in the past, (and) they end up finding other sources as well.

“For a lot of them, it’s the first time that they’re covering this community, unfortunately,” Chou said. “I think all newsrooms probably need to take a moment to be able to have those discussions about how to approach communities, and to ask those questions, and to understand the nuances and the context of it.”

Koneru said reporting also needs to take care for accuracy in describing people’s identity.

“When you’re reporting, it is important to to be able to identify someone by the ethnicity or the identity that they hold,” she said. “This is true not just for ethnic or racial identities but also for gender identity. For where we are today, that is such an important job for journalists, to make sure, am I representing you the way that you see yourself and the way that you want to be seen?”

Build capacity when news isn’t breaking

Breaking stories usually find the weaknesses in newsrooms. In this year’s anti-Asian violence coverage, for instance, language barriers got in the way of inclusive coverage, noted The N&O’s Hajela and Shen-Berro.

Ashad Hajela
Ashad Hajela

“We wanted to make sure that we were including everyday people in our coverage as well as experts,” Hajela said. “I speak Hindi and Spanish. We didn’t have anyone who was available to speak any of the languages that we needed for this kind of story.”

Added Shen-Berro: In Atlanta, “Korean media were able to get deeper because they could communicate” with family and community members.

In the conversation you’ll hear more ideas for how journalists and news organizations can deepen their competence and resources for covering AAPI people and the diaspora of diverse communities, from many different countries and representing a variety of languages, and they all boil down to showing up for coverage in an ongoing way versus just during a crisis.

“There’s an opportunity being missed: partnering with ethnic and community media,” Lari said. If mainstream newsrooms are “building those relationships now, building those relationships ahead of time, I think it’s going to be really beneficial.”

To aid that effort: A new report just out, “Asian Media on the Front Lines” from the Center for Community Media, shows the impact of a rich and varied landscape of Asian American and Pacific Islander media outlets.

Journalists who are “the only” or the few need allies and support

Anita Rao, host of “Embodied” at WUNC noted that “being the only Asian American person an air, there is this kind of lone wolf thing in a lot of newsrooms in the state.”

“You’re the one asked to be the bridge builder in these moments of stress and crisis, (while) you’re probably going through your own moments of stress and crisis,” Rao said as she asked the panel what they’d experienced.

AAJA offered mental health resources for journalists, and AAPI journalists also spoke out prominently about mistakes and ignorance they saw in covaerge.

Yet the panelists also praised efforts they saw in their own organizations.

At The N&O, Shen-Berro and Hajela (both relatively new to the paper) say they’ve been supported in pursuing stories they find important, and also appreciated personal outreach at difficult moments.

“By the end of the day after a really long day of making phone calls (about the Atlanta violence aftermath)… my editors did reach out to me to check in on a human-to-human level, to see if I was doing ok,” Shen-Berro said. “I’ve seen a lot of allies in the journalism community here.”

Hajela, who has family in India, said coworkers had been checking in with him during India’s COVID crisis, too, and he appreciates the work his newsroom is doing to audit sources in terms of diversity.

Yet the panelists all knew the feeling of being in the overwhelming minority in their organizations, often a role that means they are asked to be intermediaries.

“It’s still a challenge to try and be an active voice for the community as well as trying to be that objective, impartial” journalist, Chou noted. “You don’t want to be the one to feel like they always have to pitch that story. Your perspective is also valued in the newsroom… you’re always just trying to balance and weigh that in the newsroom.”

The video recording runs just under an hour, and well worth your time. The conversation moved easily among dozens more key points, so please check it out and share any feedback you have.

NC Local News Workshop