Musings On Newsroom Diversity

The people of color in the Texas Tribune newsroom when it launched, in 2009. We jokingly took this "minority caucus" photo.

The people of color in the Texas Tribune newsroom when it launched, in 2009. Given there were so few of us, we jokingly took this “minority caucus” photo.

 

As audiences — and, let’s face it — the entire United States of America — become increasingly non-white, new numbers are out on newsroom diversity. They’re “meh”:

“People of color make up about 17 percent of staffs at daily newspapers and 23 percent at digital operations. At print publications, about 38 percent of staffers are women; digital operations clock in at 50 percent women.”

The figures represent an increase in top line numbers, but as I pointed out when quoted for this piece, diversity isn’t just a numbers game. It is helpful to have metrics to see where you’re starting and whether you’re improving, but any diversity efforts have to be interrogated further: What does diversity mean to whoever is championing it? Does it mean just having a mix of people, or does it mean empowering non-white people in a way that’s meaningful, in a way that they’re not scared to share opinions that are out of sync, or might challenge norms and improve the organization?

My personal experiences as a person of color in newsrooms include annoyances like getting confused for another Asian reporter (so often that this is how me and Ailsa Chang became friends), and struggling with feeling like a token or “the only one” in the room. I even used Family Guy‘s token “Asian Reporter Trisha Takanawa” as my Facebook avatar for awhile. To drive home the point of subtle racism toward minority journalists, Family Guy makes it overt: “Tricia’s cultural background prevents her from entering certain buildings. In the series, she cannot go into the Park-Barrington Hotel because ‘they don’t allow Asians inside.'”

The burden of being “the only one” is a tax that we minorities pay over time, and could explain why so many people of color drop out of the field before realizing their full leadership potential. Why do I have to be the only one in a room who speaks up for inclusion? And don’t look at me for what Asians writ large think about things, as I can’t speak for the billions of us. As activist Jesse Williams says, racism is not a black person’s problem or a brown person’s problem. It should be the concern of everyone, so expecting that only people color carry that water is ridiculous:

“[Racism] is not a black problem. This is a white problem. This is an American problem. This is a societal problem. People should be outraged that a man is able to instigate an interaction with kids and then shoot them when it doesn’t go well. It should be an outrage for everybody.”

I don’t speak for my employer. For as long as I’ve been part of it, the organization has been talking about being a more demographically inclusive place. I believe my managers when they say they’re committed to diversity. But we have a ways to go on two fronts: retention of people of color and a lack of people of color in leadership positions. Over the past few years, we’ve lost women of color in top positions, so when I look at the very highest ranks of my company, I don’t see anyone who might have a shared experience with mine. The effects are between the lines. Without underrepresented groups in charge, not only are there likely editorial or hiring decisions that perpetuate a certain lack of diversity but what’s more concerning is that there are blind spots; gaps in experience or perspectives that seem “normal” that aren’t that way to everyone, but go unnoticed because the people at the head tables are racially homogenous.

Toward Solutions

This can’t just be a long rambling rant, right?

Besides a more thorough thinking through and interrogation of what diversity means to a newsroom, the other thing to think about is having people in power acknowledge unconscious biases transparently and use their power to make a more level playing field. This is important, because the homogeneity in leadership ranks can make newsrooms uncomfortable for people who feel different, and younger staffers may feel pressure to fit in by assimilating to existing culture rather than disrupting and diversifying it. That then undermines the whole point of having a diverse newsroom in the first place. The assimilation in small and big ways is where I feel I’ve compromised myself the most in my journalism career. I feel sad about it and it constantly weighs on me, especially during this presidential election cycle.

As a recruiting tool, it helps to make your women and people of color visible. It’s invaluable. I came to NPR because of the sheer visibility and change making of another person of color, Matt Thompson (now at The Atlantic). He is my forever work spouse and had no small part in recruiting me. He was a champion for recruiting people of color and even mandating that people of color be in finalist pools when we hired.

Beyond the straight transaction of recruitment, I think it helps me and other minorities to see other women and people of color speak up for themselves and own their value at organizations. It sets a great example and makes for places I want to work.

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September 11

On 9/11/2001 I was living in Houston, on a semester off from Mizzou, and training for the Houston marathon, which is held every January. So that morning I headed to lush Memorial Park to do a workout with my training buddies at five in the morning, since that’s how early you have to run in Houston because otherwise you might die of heatstroke.

We were finished with our speed drills that morning by before seven. So from there I drove to the 24 Fitness gym on San Felipe and Ross where I would often go stretch, cool down or lift weights. I picked a recumbent bike in the first of two rows in front of TV screens, right next to Dr. Alan Katz, who was also my OB/GYN after meeting at the gym and shooting the shit every once in awhile. (I figure, hey we always chat on the bikes, you might as well make sure my girl parts are healthy.)

Sometime during this chatty bike ride we saw on the screens the plane hit the first tower. It was completely unclear at that time what was going on, we suspected they were filming a movie. It wasn’t until I got home and took a shower and saw the second plane hit that I realized we were under some sort of terrorist attack. It was terrifying, considering we’d really spent the rest of the summer concerned about a spate of shark attacks near American beaches.

I called my mom, who was at work at the Taiwanese consulate, who said I should probably just stay home from college classes that day. I did, and when she got home from work we went shopping, because she was like, “We should spend all our money in case we’re not around much longer.” When we got back into the car after walking around the mall like zombies, while we were sitting in the parking lot, the radio was playing the U.S. Congress singing “God Bless America” together on the steps of the Capitol. We sat there and cried.

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Mr. Fenney

My zero hour geography teacher in 11th grade was Mr. Fenney. Mr. Fenney — late thirties at the time — was a hipster in Texas, before hipsters existed. He liked to talk about Italian art films to high schoolers, explain why the colonists had completely fucked Africa for forever, and treated us teenagers as far more enlightened than we really were.

We were also basically never able to get a rise out of him for anything. One afternoon, after a particularly difficult exam that morning, I busted into his 7th period class and announced to the whole class of mostly strangers, is this the Europe exam?! “That test raped me in the ass this morning!” Mr. Fenney just sort of chuckled and then went about his test proctoring. (Side note: What was I even doing?)

As these things go, I don’t remember any of the book teaching that Mr. Fenney did. Just the asides and random tidbits about the world that he would teach us, like showing us how nonsensically Africa was carved up. And since we had to memorize some land masses and rivers after coloring unlabeled maps as homework, I might be able to identify Laos on a map today (maybe).

The most salient memory I have of Mr. Fenney is what he slapped up on the overhead projector on the first day of class. It was a quote by T.S. Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

It’s a famous T.S. Eliot missive, as I know now. But to my 17-year old self, this was revelatory. And it’s largely guided my life, it turns out. So I think of Mr. Fenney fairly often, and the esoteric — but crucial — impact he made on me. Thanks, dude. Sorry I was such a pain in the ass.

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Goodbye To My Constant Travel Companion, The Breast Pump

Security check at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The blue jug at bottom left is to dump liquids above 150ml.

Security check at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The blue jug at bottom left is to dump liquids above 150ml.

Yet again I was standing over several bottles of my breastmilk splayed out in a bin My bag got pulled for an extra look at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport security checkpoint, something that happens pretty often when you’re carrying lots of liquids, I guess. The Japanese security agent pointed out the milk in plastic bottles he had removed exceeded the 150ml limit. (At least I think that’s what he was saying. I don’t speak Japanese, and he kept pointing at the 150ml line on the bottle.) Then he pulled up a giant blue plastic jug that looked like one of those tanks you carry spare gasoline in. It was half-full with a swamp-colored mix of whatever previous passengers must have dumped out. He started unscrewing the lid of one of my bottles.

“Oh no, no,” I said, starting to panic. “This is MY milk. It’s from my body. I can’t dump it. I can’t.” I started doing the two-hands-squeezing-in-the-air motion, in front of my chest. I have made this hand gesture for “boob sucking” so many times that I can only remember a single trip in Asia when I didn’t do it.

He turned pink. My arm hairs were stood up. The passenger who could understand English standing nearby started cracking up.

“Oh ok ok ok ok,” the Japanese guard said, sheepishly. I packed up and scurried to the customs check.

I pass through two airports a week, nearly every week, as part of my job as a foreign correspondent. I’m also the breastfeeding mom of an infant. I love nursing, I do not love pumping. But to continue doing the former, I have to do the latter when I’m away from baby. Which means every time I travel without daughter Isabel, a milk-extracting contraption powered by batteries or an AC adapter must travel with me, along with attachments and the storage bottles and ice packs necessary to keep the milk from going bad before it’s transferred home.

As the baby gets close to turning one, a milestone at which she can drink cow’s milk instead of mine, I am preparing to stop globetrotting with my constant companion — the breast pump and the milk.

What a year we’ve had together.

There was today’s close call, when I almost had to pour out the four bottles full of “liquid gold” I’d extracted from my body with the suck-simulating device I strap myself to in between conducting interviews and other reportage.

There was the time two Beijing airport guards took out the plastic suction parts — the catalog calls them ‘breastshields’ — in front of a line of people behind us, examining them like a frog they were about to dissect for 9th grade biology class.

“We’ve never seen one of these pass through before,” one of the twenty-something year old guards said to me, of the machine.

There was the other time a Chinese guard demanded I show him all the parts of the pump, how the tubes connected to the base, and to turn it on before he let it pass.

There are the questions at security about where is the baby, to which I have to explain, good god if they baby were with me I wouldn’t have this overpriced contraption instead, would I?

Then there are the hassles I brought upon myself, due to carelessness. The first time I fired up the pump in my new home of Seoul, I blew out the pump’s power pack when I plugged it into Korea’s 220V. (The device was designed for America’s 120V.) Without that I couldn’t operate it, so a friend with military ties had to rush on to the U.S. base to buy me a new machine from the commissary.

Rule of thumb: Never leave any part at home. When I forgot to pack the critical suction cups, er, ‘breastshields,’ for a five-day trip to Beijing, I spent an entire morning on an odyssey to Chinese malls instead of reporting, because I HAD TO find parts close enough to what I needed so I could express my boobs before passing out from pressure and pain.

The adventures are always made more amusing (and challenging) because there’s a clock ticking on pumping — if you don’t do it every few hours, it’s not just uncomfortable but unhealthy.

Which is why a photographer I’d just met had to see (and hear) my pumping from the backseat of a cramped rental car as we drove through Fukushima’s temporary housing projects. Or why I have to reluctantly link up with the clunky device while in the middle seat of a plane, a blanket thrown over me and hoping not to wake the dudes sleeping on both sides.

The day President Obama visited Hiroshima I had about 20 minutes before he arrived to express my breasts in a bathroom stall. The State Department and U.S. Embassy press wranglers rushed my milk to the kitchen of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum so it could be refrigerated until the event was over. When the museum restaurant with the fridge closed, the Japanese staff had expertly packed ice packs around the bottles to keep cool until I was done working. (The Japanese are serious about their packaging.)

Before I know it, this spinoff story of my Asia adventure, the one starring an awkwardly purring machine, will be over. Maybe I’ll miss it, most likely I won’t. And either way, I’ll always have a reminder of the year of pumping endlessly. It’s the wee one at home, who’s the real power source for the pumping.

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What is the future of journalism? Pick any adjective out of the dictionary and that word can describe it. The news business is in such a revolutionary time that filling in “The Future of Journalism is ____” with any word, and supporting the argument, has become a parlor game among a certain mass media-obsessed set.

Today I found myself on another future of journalism panel, and a Japanese journalist shared the observation that his paper’s business plan is “old people living longer.” Luckily, he says, Japan is an aging society and “old people love the printed paper,” so their business model rests on those eyeballs. The only times people call to cancel their subscriptions is when a subscriber has a.) died, or b.) lost enough eyesight that the print is too difficult to read.

Banking on old people to stick around as long as possible (in relatively good health) is kind of Japan’s nationwide policy, come to think of it.

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On Living In Asia And A Different Notion of ‘Freedom’

Daughter Eva, on a day when pollution in Seoul measured "hazardous for all groups," not just children and old people.

Daughter Eva, on a day when pollution in Seoul measured “hazardous for all groups,” not just children and old people.

Before I moved to Asia, my notion of freedom largely existed in the realm of figurative freedom, that is, to live in the moment and be free of worry about what was next, or what was buzzing over on my smartphone. How to live freely was notional — a mental freedom, because the other kinds were a given.

A year into this Asian life, my entire construct of freedom has changed. The areas where freedom was default — the freedom to breathe without endangering my health, the freedom to browse the Internet without hitting walls, the freedom to speak and be understood, are no longer a given.

I have come to know the challenge of not having a common language in which to communicate with sources, and just in everyday life. Korea and Japan, my coverage areas, are famously homogenous societies. In Korea, the number of “foreigners” living here is three percent. My Korean interpreter is excellent, but there is a certain captivity when having to speak through someone else’s voice; something I never understood so clearly until living this way for the past year. Would I be able to get that one interview if I were expressing myself properly, or if there were a way to do nuance when speaking through a proxy? Is there just an entire world that could be unlocked to us if we could understand what the hell was going on around us?

It is my job to monitor North Korea, but North Korean sites are more accessible from the firewalled Chinese internet than they are in Seoul, where South Korea blocks North Korean news and information sites under a Cold War-era national security law, a holdover from the time of fear that communist ideology would creep south of the border. Getting on trusted Western news sites in China, meanwhile, makes you long for the dial-up internet speeds of the early 1990s. VPNs can help, but only so long as the Chinese censors don’t kick you off of them just as you’re getting connected.

The environment. Each morning my first phone check is not for the news or my emails but instead, the levels of the harmful, invisible particulate matter, PM2.5, to decide whether I can exercise outdoors, or whether the baby gets to go out on a walk in the afternoon. On many days this year, the levels have been too high for my girls to go outdoors. “The air is bad today” coming out of the mouth of a three-year-old is quietly heartbreaking. The hacking cough sounds of a baby are even worse.

In March, my husband, daughters and my parents stayed for a long weekend in Okinawa after I finished up some reporting there. The six of us were walking to dinner (we had found a Red Lobster in Japan and I’ve never met a chain restaurant I didn’t love). My mom and my older daughter, Eva, disappeared for a few minutes. Later when they caught up with us my mom told me they had come upon a steep grassy hill and young Japanese kids were rolling down the hill. Eva found it puzzling and delightful. She tried to do it, but it took her a few attempts before she could figure it out — the girl had never rolled down a hill before, because she hasn’t grown up around enough grass or hills to do so, nor does she get to play outside that much. I was aghast; I grew up a tomboy in the suburbs, playing in creeks in the summertime and sledding down neighborhood slopes when it snowed.

This kind of existence has made me value small, yet huge, freedoms I never thought about before, and consider them more fully when deciding what to do next. Millions of people in China and India’s megacities have it far worse when it comes to pollution, and millions of children are growing up breathing the same air my children would breathe if I moved to, say, Shanghai, for a couple of years. But, I have a choice; many of their parents do not have the same choice. 99 percent of the time my parenting philosophy is kids are adaptable and flexible; they can easily fold into their families’ lives. But I feel like pollution and lifelong lung capacity falls in the one percent of instances where I should adapt to what they need, first.

Internet hassles and lost in translation moments are sort of the pleasures of a job as a foreign correspondent, challenges that shape you and mold you, over time. I find pollution far more pernicious because its effects may not be known for awhile, if ever. The privileges of my life and work so far mean I’ve never had a “I can’t have it all” moment until now. I think this is it. I want kids who get to go outside and to cover arguably the biggest global story right now. The former has outweighed the latter.

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Planes, Trains, Buses and Boats

The traveling White House press loading yet another mode of transportation. These people are pros at moving their luggage around.

The traveling White House press loading yet another mode of transportation. These people are pros at moving their luggage around.

I just returned from a five-day trip to Japan that felt like it lasted two weeks. Part of the reason is how much of Japan’s main island we had to traverse to cover the president, who was making his final trip to the Asian country as president. He concluded it with an unprecedented visit to nuclear ground zero, Hiroshima.

You know how when you arrive at an airport there are signs for “Taxi” or “Rental Car”? At the Nagoya airport, there are signs just like that, except for “High Speed Boat.” That was the first leg of my journey to get to Ise-Shima, the twin cities hosting this year’s G7 summit. I boated it 45 minutes to Tsu before catching a bus to Ise, which was another 70 minutes away.

Boat transit.

Boat transit.

That was just the beginning of several days inside various transportation-craft, the best of which were the chartered planes for the traveling White House press. They featured KFC chicken fingers as we awaited clearance for take-off and everyone in first class.  Instead of numbered seats, you get a seating chart, by news organization.

CNN was the team in charge of pooling the shots for the rest of the networks, hence, UBER crew.

CNN was the team in charge of pooling the shots for the rest of the networks, hence, UBER crew.

I like doing these POTUS trips because I get to reunite with some of my old Washington pals, like David Nakamura, who travels with the president a lot for his gig at the Washington Post, and I always meet new friends, too. This time the CNN International crew that adopted me was led by their Hong Kong-based editor and correspondent, Andrew Stevens. When the G7 leaders visited the heart of Shinto-ism, the Ise Shrine, the press didn’t get to go. So we waited til the leaders left and made our way there to check it out.

At the Ise Jingu with CNN producer Steven Jiang, in from Beijing, yours truly and CNN correspondent Andrew Stevens, in from Hong Kong.

At the Ise Jingu with CNN producer Steven Jiang, in from Beijing, yours truly and CNN correspondent Andrew Stevens, in from Hong Kong.

Not long after this photo was taken, we wandered a street in front of the shrine’s entrance and found a craft beer stand. Not unlike a lemonade stand, but with beer and fried oysters on sticks. Divine.

The trip got increasingly more intense as the end of it neared, because the final day was the weightiest of the president’s Asia journey: He visited nuclear ground zero, Hiroshima, and became the first U.S. president to do so. It was emotional being there, especially when the two survivors that would shake hands and hug the president were rolled in their wheelchairs right past me as I rushed to get out to the camera locations to catch the wreath laying. I knew immediately they were the survivors from their ages — nonagenarians — and from the contentment on their faces. One of them had clear evidence of burns on his skin. I later read he had been burned head to toe in the bombing.

Anyway, it’s difficult to cover those sorts of events because of the bigness of what’s happening before your eyes and the lack of time to reflect upon what you’re bearing witness to, and what had happened there in that spot where we stood, where now there’s manicured lawns and children and French bulldogs playing. 71 years ago, it was a wasteland.

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A Seattle Sojourn

Our plane after we got dropped off on the dock of John's farm.

Our plane after we got dropped off on the dock of John’s farm.

I just got back from a week in the Pacific Northwest, where I went to communion with clean air and great friends. For the Grist board retreat, board member John Vechey hosted us (and Grist leadership staff) on his 160-acre farm on Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands just a short seaplane lift from Seattle. There, we met about the future of Grist and the future of the planet, but we also laughed a lot and ate ridiculously delicious meals and stayed in bucolic bungalows and drank Moscow Mules that John made at his bar.

The board members who made it to Orcas this time around.

The board members who made it to Orcas this time around.

But I didn’t want to fly all the way to the Seattle area and not spend time in Seattle proper. So I got a couple of days at the end in which one of my oldest pals, Brad, met up with me for a ramble around downtown and chowder on Alki Island. Thanks to social media, I was also able to squeeze in some meals with old pals who saw on Facebook that I was in town — Robert, from the KVUE days, and Celinda, from the Texas Capitol days. It meant a lot to get so much catchup time “in real life.”

Social media makes us more connected but also more hands off about the KIND of connection we’re doing. I think it’s really important to try and get together in the same physical space and explore a place as much as possible. As the temperatures dropped and a light rain fell to make it quintessentially Seattle, Brad and I walked through Pike Place Market and all the artisans selling weird wood art and through the newish Sculpture Park, where we discovered a stunning piece that only looked like a huge warhead or phallus from the back. So you gotta see it from the front. I also snuck in some super-speed shopping for “American things” at Target, so Eva and Isa both got a serious haul when I came home.

The "proof we were there" shot.

The “proof we were there” shot.

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Tuesday night, our building is making every resident unplug all our electronic devices — including appliances — from midnight to six a.m. while some Korean authority conducts an apartment-wide electricity inspection. Our neighbor Julie is super pissed about it. Her husband has sleep apnea so he uses with one of those machines to aid his breathing at night. Its power source is a cord plugged into the wall, something that will be impossible tomorrow night. He scrimped on getting one with the optional battery-power pack! Now Julie’s not only pissed about the inspection, she’s reminded about her earlier anger that he didn’t buy the battery powered option.

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