AAJA Asks: Are We Being Ghettoized?

Aug 15, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Sheree R. Curry

Special to TelevisionWeek

“Not ready for prime time” is the message a number of minority journalists say their industry is sending them.

While no definitive numbers exist, the leadership of the Asian American Journalists Association is convinced the matter is serious enough to warrant discussion. One of the panels at the AAJA’s 17th annual convention this week will address the concerns of journalists of color who believe they are being relegated to what is seen as less-desirable time slots: weekends, overnight and afternoons and the 5:30-7 a.m. shifts.

Nina Bouphasavanh, a panel coordinator and a morning reporter at WTEN-TV in Albany, N.Y., said she knows some people, including a panelist, who disagree with the notion that many people of color are relegated to working mornings. But she said the idea for the panel evolved from a discussion at a Minnesota AAJA chapter meeting during which members spoke of personal experiences and observations that indicate otherwise. The panel, called “Good Mornin'” and comprising anchors and reporters who have worked mornings at some point in their career, will discuss whether or not the notion has legs.

“The panel is meant to raise awareness in newsrooms,” Ms. Bouphasavanh said.

Panelist Nancy Loo, a morning anchor at Fox’s WFLD-TV in Chicago, said she has always worked the morning shift at various stations during her 10-plus-year career, which includes a stint at WABC-TV in New York.

She rises at 2:18 a.m. each weekday (timed to the minute for the most sleep possible). She is at work by 4 a.m. and on-air at 5 a.m., 6 a.m. and noon. At 12:30 she zips out the door and heads for home.

For some people, that day would seem unbearable because of the early rise, but this Emmy Award-winning Hong Kong native said though she would not turn down an offer to work an evening newscast, she has no problem with mornings. “I don’t see the morning shift as degrading. The morning shift works out wonderfully,” she said. “I can have a full-time job and still see my children in the afternoon and attend school events and go to early games. The only thing I really miss out on is bedtime and getting them ready for school.”

Though Ms. Loo sees her shift as a “glass half-full,” she wonders why a number of Asian journalists seem to end up on the morning desk, given how few of them are on local television news. A 2005 study by the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Ball State University said Asian American journalists account for 1.9 percent of local TV newsroom staffs, compared with 78.8 percent Caucasian, 10.3 percent African American and 8.7 percent Latino.

Looking at the Chicago market, she points out that ABC, NBC and CBS have no Asians anchoring the evening news, even though several appear on mornings, afternoons or weekends. Linda Yu co-anchors the 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. newscasts for ABC’s WLS-TV and Judy Hsu co-anchors its morning news. At NBC-owned WMAQ-TV in Chicago, Ellee Pai Hong anchors the morning news, while Nesita Kwan anchors in the 4:30 p.m. slot. CBS’s WBBM-TV has no Asian anchors, but Joanie Lum, a past president of the Chicago chapter of AAJA, is a general assignment reporter.

The likelihood of minorities not appearing in prime positions “depends on the market,” said Lloyd LaCuesta, South Bay bureau chief for Cox Television-owned Fox affiliate KTVU-TV, Oakland, Calif., and AAJA’s first president. He said that California’s large minority population is frequently reflected in the news staffs.

In San Francisco, a city whose population is 30-plus percent Asian American, Kristen Sze anchors the world news updates on the morning news at ABC-owned KGO-TV and co-anchors the midday news, while Sandhya Patel anchors weekend weather. Sydnie Kohara co-anchors Viacom-owned CBS affil KPIX-TV’s “Eyewitness News Early Edition.” NBC’s KNTV has an Asian prime-time anchor: Lisa Kim sits at the desk for the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news.

Ethnicity doesn’t have much to do with who lands which position, said David Ono, who co-anchors the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. news as well as the midday news for KABC-TV in Los Angeles. “It’s talent and experience. You should expect to work scrub jobs and work your way up.”

Mr. Ono knows what he’s talking about. His first on-air position was in 1987 as the weekday evening anchor at KOSA-TV in Midland, Texas, after three years behind the scenes for KXAS-TV in Dallas/Fort Worth. He also anchored evenings in El Paso, Texas, at KDBC-TV and then morning and noon at KOVR-TV in Sacramento, Calif. He is at a place in his career, he said, where he is comfortable negotiating his own contracts. He made his last five deals without an agent, and will moderate an AAJA panel, a how-to called “Do It Yourself.”

The Midwest lags behind some regions of the U.S. in terms of weeknight diversity, said Vineeta Sawkar, who has been weekend anchor at Hubbard Broadcasting-owned KSTP-TV, an ABC affiliate in Minneapolis-St. Paul, for eight years.

Ms. Sawkar is not complaining about her position, however. As the mother of a 2-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son, she echoed Ms. Loo when said the hours have been great for being able to spend time with her children. She will moderate the AAJA panel “I Want a Life!” that will discuss how a journalist can balance personal life and career. She sees shift scheduling as an issue, however.

“I think in the Midwest it is a struggle for people of color. They do stall in their career on weekends and the morning,” Ms. Sawkar said. “I see a lot more weeknight diversity elsewhere around the country, like in New York and Seattle.”

KSTP did have an Asian weeknight anchor from summer 2003 through summer 2004. Kent Ninomiya, who left a weekend anchor position at Fox-owned UPN affiliate KCOP-TV in Los Angeles to come to the Twin Cities, co-anchored the 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. news with Harris Faulkner, an African American woman. They both were fired from the station, whose ratings were on a decline during and before their teaming. At the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, Viacom-owned WCCO-TV, Amelia Santaniello, whose mother is Japanese, anchors the news at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.

When it comes to hiring talent, “I look for the best-qualified candidate for particular roles,” said Tai Takahashi, news director at Media General ABC affiliate WTVQ-TV, Lexington, Ky., who said he doesn’t think station managers and news directors are consciously putting people of color in undesirable positions.

“In my career, I didn’t find any evidence of people being thrown on weekend or morning because they are minority,” he said.

Though Mr. Takahashi has worked evenings, he also has done stints on the weekends and mornings when he worked as a line producer in Atlanta and Seattle, he said. “In all fairness to news management, I don’t think it was anything intentional. They hire newer blood for the weekend shift, [which is] more tailor-made for [less experienced] people.”

Now that he is on the hiring side, Mr. Takahashi, who is scheduled to be on a “When I Become a Broadcast Boss” panel, admits that when he has had openings, he has asked some agents to show him more minority candidates. He’s quick to point out, however, that he has never asked to see only minorities.

Asian American Journalists Association Convention

When: Aug. 17-20

Where: Hyatt Regency, Minneapolis

Why: The event, which attracts about 1,000 participants, is not just for journalists of color but for all professional and student journalists interested in learning through media training institutes, panels, workshops and a career fair.

Keynote speaker: Walter Mondale, a former vice president, U.S. ambassador to Japan and senator who is now senior counsel and chair of the Asian Law Practice Group at Minneapolis-based law firm Dorsey & Whitney