Four lessons from Jeremy Lin coverage for reporting on minorities

byAndy Shuai Liu
Mar 4, 2012 in Diversity

The rush to cover basketball's rising star Jeremy Lin led to more than a few journalism fouls, costing one online sports editor his job.

Inappropriate references to ethnic minority groups or individuals can lead to public outrage, harming both the reporter's career and the reputation of the news organization.

Amidst all the recent hype about NBA star Jeremy Lin was the firing of an ESPN editor over an offensive headline.

In response, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) released a media advisory about news coverage of Lin and shared its handbook on how to cover Asian Americans.

Here are IJNet's takeaways from AAJA’s guidelines into the following tips that all journalists can apply when referencing to ethnic minorities:

1. Use common sense.

Although the appropriateness of an ethnic reference should be examined in a case-specific context, there are some basic, common-sense principles. AAJA’s handbook identifies such principles as follows:

  • Principle No. 1: Dig harder.
  • Principle No. 2: Make no assumptions.
  • Principle No. 3: Don’t give offense.

These principles guide journalists to adopt no stereotypes and to check facts for every racial or ethnic reference. Briefly, consistent issues management helps avoid unintentional offenses and crises.

2. Discuss physical features with caution.

Journalists should not avoid all discussions of physical characteristics, yet respectful comments on physical features should be made only when they are relevant to the story. AAJA’s media advisory made these useful recommendations that apply to covering any ethnicity:

"Stop to think: Would a similar statement be made about an athlete who is Caucasian, African American, Latino or Native American?

Use caution when discussing Lin’s physical characteristics, particularly those that feminize or emasculate the Asian male. Discussion of genetic differences in athletic ability among races should be avoided. In referring to Lin’s height or vision, be mindful of the context and avoid invoking stereotypes about Asians."

3. Separate ethnic heritage from country of origin.

The fact that Jeremy Lin, an American, is of Asian descent does not necessarily mean that he was born and raised in Asia.

Similarly, AAJA’s handbook drew upon a widely known example: “[In] February 1998... on the MSNBC website, when white figure skater Tara Lipinski, an American, defeated Michelle Kwan, also an American, for the Olympic gold medal... [the] headline read, ‘American Beats Out Kwan.’

Don't dwell on a person’s ethnic heritage without checking and referencing his or her nationality.

4. Be aware of and pay respect to traditions and customs. Attempts at wit with references to fortune cookies fell completely flat. When it's necessary to mention a person’s or a group’s ethnicity, reference should be made with accuracy and respect. Irrelevant association of a person with an object or activity that stereotypes his or her ethnicity is lazy, often offensive and should be avoided.

Have you ever covered minority groups? What are the guidelines to racial or ethnic references for journalists in your country?