In Depth

Olympics Put Focus on China

Asian American Journalists Bring Unique Perspective

The Asian American Journalists Association uses the term “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders” to describe all Americans “who self-identify with one or more of the three dozen nationalities and ethnic groups in East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands.”

That’s a pretty broad spectrum from which to cull journalists, and a fair number of those journalists (AAJA has about 2,300 members) will take part in the Unity Conference in Chicago this week.

“It’s always been the goal [of AAJA] to promote fair and accurate coverage of the Asian community,” said Executive Director Rene Astudillo, who has led the organization since 1999. “On the international level, more and more we’re seeing the onset of globalization in terms of news coverage. In the headlines, we’ve seen not just what’s happening here, but what’s happening everywhere.”

The Beijing Olympics should be an important opportunity for Asian American journalists, he said: “Other people will be covering the sports, but the issues in China—like human rights and freedom of the press—there are Asian American journalists who are familiar with those situations, who are motivated to look beyond the usual suspects.”

One such journalist is veteran Mei Ling Sze, a Chinese-speaking anchor and managing editor for KTSF-TV Chinese News in San Francisco, who started her career in Hong Kong. KTSF “already has a presence in Beijing” for the Summer Olympics and will be sending six journalists to cover the Games, Ms. Sze said, adding that the station has been closely monitoring human rights issues in China for 20 years. “That’s the kind of thing we follow constantly,” she said.

Although the KTSF newsroom is staffed primarily by Asian American journalists and serves a large Asian community, its numbers are the exception and not the rule. According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ annual census, Asian Americans make up just 3.22% of newsroom employees, Mr. Astudillo noted.

“We have a long way to go in achieving parity in the newsroom,” he said. “We’re hoping that the percentage of working Asian American journalists would come closer to the actual [U.S.] Census numbers, which show that 5% of the total population is Asian American.

“An important step in ensuring there’s more representation is to make sure people in the newsroom are aware of, and support, executive leadership programs that provide Asian American journalists the skills to break the glass ceiling. We have certain issues we strive for, including more representation in the decision-making process.”

At Unity ’08, AAJA will offer a two-day advanced session for graduates of its Executive Leadership Program, designed to help journalists become newsroom leaders, as well as an executive networking lunch and a mentoring program for one-on-one professional guidance.

Mr. Astudillo was quick to note that there are some problems that transcend ethnicity. “We’re all journalists, and what’s happening in the media right now affects all journalists in general—companies laying off employees, newspapers being sold. Whatever is affecting journalists affects us as well.”

But some journalists under the AAJA umbrella do face difficulties stemming from ethnic bias. Egyptian American Natasha Ghoneim, a freelance reporter for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, admitted that apart from the problems she has encountered with management and fellow journalists, within the Muslim community itself television journalism “is not considered an appropriate profession for a woman to go into.”

Ms. Ghoneim, a panelist for the AAJA session “From Iraq to Iowa: Covering Arab Americans—How to Get It Right on Deadline,” scheduled for Friday, believes that Arab Americans in the newsroom “don’t have much of a voice.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Korean American sports anchor Michael Kim of ESPN, who will moderate a panel at the Unity convention that’s designed to help sportswriters make the leap from print to broadcast or other electronic journalism. Mr. Kim said he feels fortunate that the meshing of sports and journalism has placed him in something of a neutral zone.

“You’re a sports fan first, so you see [fewer problems] than in any other field,” he said, “unless there are guys at ESPN secretly sitting in a room saying, ‘Let’s stick Michael with that story.’”

The AAJA, which was founded in 1981, now boasts 19 chapters nationwide, with one chapter in Asia. Mr. Astudillo, who emigrated from the Philippines, is an ex-officio member of the board of directors of Unity and has been a columnist and contributing editor for the Filipino Guardian.

He also served as executive director of the Filipino Task Force on AIDS and education director of the Life Foundation, a nonprofit AIDS organization based in Honolulu. He emphasizes that all Asian Americans should have a voice with which to tell their stories.

“Most of the coverage of Asian American communities we’ve seen in the U.S. has been about cultural activities,” Mr. Astudillo said, “but there’s more to Asian life than the celebration of Chinese New Year.”