How audiences can demand journalistic integrity to fight anti-Asian racism

The spike of anti-Asian racism forces us to reckon with the journalistic integrity of undiversified newsrooms. We must recognize our role in this as critical readers.

Journalistic integrity is important. Given the surge of anti-Asian racism since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, poor image choice and verbiage used by news media has skewed readers’ perceptions, indicating a lack of awareness and insensitivity on the media’s part.

A group of people easily identifiable as East Asian workers workers ration toilet paper to one package per Costco member in an effort to stem hoarding due to fears of coronavirus, at a Costco store in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Reuters)
Photo credit: Chris Helgren.

“Optics are important. Context matters, images matter, and language matters,” says Cold Tea Collective Staff Writer Vivian Dang, who reached out to a national news outlet last month asking them to change the featured image of an article — which included a group of Asians seeming to hoard toilet paper at a retail store. The article had nothing to do with the chosen photo of East Asians hoarding, so why specifically choose this instead of a generic photo?

Read also: Navigating through the rise in anti-Asian racism

Although research shows anti-Asian racism has been steadily declining over the past decade, it quickly reversed last March, when former President Donald Trump and other conservative politicians started publicly referring to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus,” “Chinese virus,” and “Kung Flu.” 

What followed was an instant uptick in anti-Asian sentiment. On March 9, 2020, there was an 800 percent increase in the use of negative COVID-19 rhetoric circulating within conservative news media articles. This did not happen in a vacuum.


A recent report published by the Virulent Hate Project reviewed over 4,000 news articles published in 2020 to understand trends in COVID-19-related anti-Asian racism.

It identified over 1,000 incidents of anti-Asian racism, which included 679 incidents of anti-Asian harassment and vandalism, and 344 incidents of stigmatizing and discriminatory statements, images, policies, and proposals.

This stigmatizing language fed into the collective belief that Asian Americans are “perpetual foreigners” — the stereotype that perceives ethnic minority groups as the “other ” and that they will never belong in America. Rucker Johnson, public policy professor at University of California, Berkeley told NBC that “when people see Asian Americans as more ‘foreign,’ they are more likely to express hostility toward them and engage in acts of violence.”

Read more: Why we must learn Asian American history

Major news headlines relating China to the pandemic virus.
Photo credit: CGTN

News and media play a huge role in evoking emotions in its audience and readers, and it becomes extremely apparent when it comes to viral news headlines.

Cultivation theory, one of the core theories of media effects, suggests constant exposure to the media cultivates specific, and often one-sided, values, beliefs, and attitudes especially with uncritical consumption. In the digital age, new media sites have become even more nuanced in the art of persuading large masses of people and shaping their beliefs.

For example, the news headlines surrounding the initial COVID-19 sparked high levels of fear amongst the general public. Repetitive phrases such as “deadly virus,” “outbreak,” and “public health emergency” evoke negative sentiments.

To then cover the virus through a racial lens transformed the fear of the virus to animosity towards what it was most associated with: China, and in extension, East Asians.  

These stigmatizing headlines then amplified anti-Asian sentiment and reinforced the marginalization of the East Asian community by generalizing and portraying them as a primary health threat.

A typographic illustration of an East Asian woman with the message "I am not a virus."
Photo credit: Cultural Daily, Lina Finley.

As seen by the surge of violence over the past year, the influence of the toxic, negative rhetoric ascribing blame on race in the discussion surrounding COVID-19 is what ultimately led to the rise in hostility against the Asian American community.


Uninformed journalism over the past year has fueled racial hate across North America by playing up harmful collective biases in reporting. How could journalists not anticipate the targeted hate against the Asian community? 

Since the majority of decision makers within these news organizations are predominantly white, they haven’t had other voices to point out or challenge these deeply rooted structural problems and this is where they have failed to represent the diverse communities they serve.

The onus is on the leaders in the journalism space to check their privilege, realize their mistakes, listen to people of colour’s voices, and enact change.

According to Columbia Journalism Review, while racial and ethnic minorities account for 40 percent of the US population, they only make up 17 percent of staff at newsrooms, and only 13 percent of leadership positions.

Moving forward, we need a more inclusive news ecosystem, and this calls for more diverse teams. The American Press Institute encourages news organizations to pursue journalism that “fairly represents, includes and aids varied groups and viewpoints in a community” …  but this is not what we actually see in news rooms.

Problematic reporting across the board during the pandemic proves that current newsroom structures need to be disrupted. There is an urgent need to hire more diverse voices. Hire voices that represent the communities they serve and provide adequate resources to support their stories. Hire voices that can provide unique perspectives, identify blind spots, and rethink journalism as a whole.

Change begins with reputable media outlets. The role of news organizations is to inform the public. With that, they have a responsibility to ensure journalistic integrity across their editorial teams. This means seeking credible sources, verifying facts and details, avoiding bias, and striving for balance and fairness.

Members of the Asian American Commission protest on the steps of the Massachusetts legislature in Boston over racism, fear-mongering and misinformation aimed at Asian communities amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo credit: APnews, Steven Senne.

When multiple news outlets use the same stock photo of Asians to form a narrative around hoarding, it shows a lack of awareness and insensitivity in their reporting. There needs to be accountability within the newsroom, and media outlets need to consider the consequences of what an image like this could have on the Asian community.

All these signs point to an increasing importance for more critical readership. Accountability is a two-way street. Not only do the media have a responsibility to uphold journalistic integrity, but as readers, we also play a part and need to think critically of bias in reporting and recognize the need to call out journalism when it goes awry.


So where do we start? And how can we strive to become more critical readers?

Here are five tips from the Foundation for Critical Thinking for examining journalism with a more critical lens:

Learn to interpret news from multiple viewpoints. Take the time to study alternate viewpoints on events and explore how stories are told from multiple perspectives. How are other journalists and news media sites telling the story?

Assess news stories for clarity, accuracy, and relevance. We live in a world full of misinformation. Learn to identify different agendas and interests — notice the facts covered and the facts ignored. Are there any contradictions and inconsistencies?

Seek insight from multiple sources of thought and information. It’s easy to get caught up in the news cycle. Some people form opinions and beliefs on the basis of the headlines they see on the surface. Continue to educate, learn, and diversify the content you consume.

Question social conventions and taboos. Define your values as you continue to interact with others, and acknowledge your implicit biases.

Mentally correct news stories that reflect bias. Are there any underlying implications and/or assumptions embedded in these stories — whether in the text or the choice of visuals?

Moving forward, learning to detect media bias is an important first step. Here are some helpful instinct-correcting maxims to keep in mind:

  1. “I believe it, but it may not be true.”
  2. “We believe it, but we may be wrong.”
  3. “We want to believe it, but we may be prejudiced by our desire.”
  4. “It serves our vested interest to believe it, but our vested interest has nothing to do with the truth.”

We’re all in this together and it’s okay to take up space and seek accountability. Point out media bias, write to editors, and stand up for better representation of minority groups. Journalism’s impact on anti-Asian racism over the past year calls for addressing the larger discrimination in linking whole populations with threats to the nation.  The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that much. We must stand up for and protect the well being of minority groups.

Read more: Standing together: Honouring Asian Heritage and Identity through Solidarity

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