As the coronavirus has spread across the United States, fear and mistrust of others has intensified. Asian Americans in particular have become a target of covid-19-related harassment. At a Costco in Seattle, a child was told to back off from a sample tray. In Brooklyn, a subway passenger was sprayed with Febreze. In Miami, an elderly woman was chased down the sidewalk by a man wielding a bottle of Purell. A pan-Asian buffet in Washington State was vandalized. A woman in Minnesota, a TV journalist in Los Angeles, and a DC man in a 7-Eleven were attacked with slurs. Children across California were bullied. An elderly man was spat on. A Korean student was punched in the face. A father and his two toddlers were stabbed.
In early February, Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University, observed the country’s climate of fear. The Trump administration had just restricted foreign nationals who had recently traveled to China from entering the US, and the status of Chinese students returning to universities for the spring term was uncertain. The World Health Organization had advised against such travel restrictions, Jeung noted; Trump’s policy appeared to be a knee-jerk xenophobic response. “I wanted to investigate,” he told me.
Jeung and two graduate assistants put together an analysis of media coverage of covid-19 related to xenophobia. Upon reviewing articles published from the first week of February to early March, they found that reports of harassment against Asians and Asian Americans had proliferated. Jeung also began to collect reports directly from victims of discrimination and harassment. In March, he and the Chinese for Affirmative Action and Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council started a website on which people can record incidents of harassment in seven languages; it has since received more than 1,400 reports. (The Anti-Defamation League also keeps a running list of media reports of harassment targeting Asian Americans.)
CJR spoke to Jeung about what he’s seen in the media coverage of anti-Asian harassment and what the media can learn from this moment. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What patterns have you noticed in media coverage of covid-19 as it relates to Asians and Asian Americans?
We heard a lot about racist incidents and xenophobic reactions, but we had no firsthand accounts. The best way we could document what was going on was to look at secondary-source data. So we began to do a content analysis of news stories. The first month, we used a database of global English-language news. We just typed in “covid-19” and “xenophobia” as a search. We looked at 433 news stories published over four weeks, read through the stories, and counted the incidents. We found 657 separate cases of xenophobic attacks.
There were two objects that were racialized in connection to the coronavirus: Chinese food—there were a lot of memes about eating bats—and masks. A lot of people reported being attacked for wearing a mask. That was the first pattern of stories. After that, a lot of stories appeared about the cancellation of Lunar New Year events and the downturn in Chinese businesses. Following that, there were more stories about racism against Asians worldwide. People would be barred from establishments, not allowed into stores; cabs wouldn’t pick them up. There were a lot of incidents on public transportation, because you’re in close quarters on buses and subways. And then there was the regular adult harassment and child bullying.
How would you characterize the media’s participation in this?
Depending on the media outlet, they could be contributing to the xenophobia by calling the virus the “Chinese virus,” calling it the “Wuhan virus,” by showing pictures of Chinese people wearing masks when they’re talking about the virus, or running stories about conspiracy theories.
In the US, there was a lot of attention on Trump’s insistence on using the term “Chinese virus” and blaming the people rather than calling it a disease.
What has been the impact of this sort of rhetoric?
So we did a second study and looked at American domestic news. We saw the same pattern of stories, but now we have a fourth type of news story, which is resistance to the racism. A lot of elected officials and health officials took a stance against prejudice because they saw such an uptick in racial profiling. And then also the Asian-American community rallied against racism.
Would you say Trump’s rhetoric directly led to attacks against Asian Americans?
I think there’s a strong correlation. You can see it in the time sequence. After a xenophobic statement is made you see an uptick in anti-Asian violence—at least in news stories.
We’ve now started a reporting center to get firsthand accounts. We’ve gotten about a hundred reports a day since it’s opened. A lot of reports talk about Trump: the assailants are using the same language. They say, “You’re the disease carrier,” or “Get rid of this Chinese virus.” So they’re parroting the same rhetoric.
After the backlash to Trump’s use of the phrase “Chinese virus,” he tweeted his support for the Asian-American community. But his language, even as it purported to be positive, remained othering. He says, “They are amazing people, they are working closely with us to get rid of it. We will prevail together.” There’s a sense that the Asian-American community exists separately from the United States.
He’s got a clear “us”-versus-“them” dichotomy. We call that Orientalist language, saying that the West is different from the East. Therefore Asian Americans are considered perpetual foreigners. That language puts us in the out-group, and it’s easy to blame and attack the out-group.
It’s stupid in both ways. They say, “I’m not Chinese, so I can’t get the disease.” Then they’re more susceptible, and they blame Chinese people. We need China’s help right now, though. We need ventilators, we need equipment, we need their expertise—and, by creating greater animosity, Trump’s building a wall from getting help.
How do you compare this current pandemic with the time of sars? How has the media environment changed since then?
Social media and the internet have really made a difference in how quickly people get and read the news. So it’s a lot more visual; people use shorthands.
For example, Asian people in masks as a visual shorthand for sickness.
We have people give the reasons for the incidents they report, and about 15 percent said the reason was they were wearing a mask. The other interesting thing about how the media has portrayed Asians and diseases is that reports always have had these caricatures of Asians being the “Yellow Peril.” Since the nineteenth century there have been cartoons of disfigured, alien-looking Asians coming in and invading the West. The media has long participated in fomenting xenophobia and exclusion.
With sars, it wasn’t as big of a pandemic as now, or as threatening. Also, we didn’t have a president who used it. Trump weaponizes the disease.
Are all Asian Americans being targeted, or specifically Chinese Americans?
In our research only 40 percent of respondents were Chinese, so that means 60 percent of reports were by non-Chinese. One result of this is ethnic distancing. So people would say, “Don’t attack me, I’m not Chinese.”
Who is most vulnerable to attack?
I didn’t recognize this until I saw the data: women are three times more likely to be harassed than men. I don’t know why; maybe people perceive them as easier to pick on. Maybe it’s physical stature. The other people who are vulnerable are children. I’m seeing that kids are afraid of getting the disease themselves, and then about being bullied or attacked. I think this is a pretty anxious, stressful time for youth. They get a lot of harassment on social media: TikTok, Instagram, all the platforms.
What forms are those attacks taking?
That’s the third thing we want to study, looking at what the viral memes and content are. But I think it’s both unintended and intended jokes that could be insensitive or straight-up racist, and obnoxious comments.
What do you think the media can do to reduce attacks against Asian Americans?
Actually, I think the reporting has made an impact. That’s why Trump came out with this statement that we can’t blame Asian Americans, we need to protect Asian Americans, because the news was reporting so much on anti-Asian violence and harassment.
The press can continue to report on what’s going on in the Asian-American community, provide platforms for Asian-American officials and groups, use accurate terms like covid-19, use pictures that are more representative of who’s getting the disease. In the US, Asians are probably the great minority.
Where do you see coverage lacking?
You asked about vulnerable populations. Unhoused people overall—people in prison, people living in close proximities—are more vulnerable. Chinatowns have a lot of hotels and cramped apartments, so I’m concerned about low-income Asians living in crowded conditions, as well as their access to resources and information. There are all these linguistically isolated communities where people don’t speak English, so I don’t know how they’re getting information about how to remain healthy and safe. Do they understand physical distancing? We need stories about who is most affected.
How do you think mainstream media serves Asian Americans in general?
They tend to neglect us. And again, stereotype us. They’ll do stories about Chinatown in places where most people don’t live in Chinatowns. They’ll go to the same spokespersons all the time rather than get real people’s perspectives. The hard thing is talking to people in their language, so they can be more eloquent and more well spoken. That’s the hard thing—not having enough language access to the community. Not having the reporters, and not even trying to have the reporters try to get access, because the reporters are so rushed and they have to find people who can speak right away. For example, someone asked me, “Can I speak to someone who’s been a victim of anti-Asian violence?” And I go, “Well, yeah, but they’re hesitant and they’re scared.” So you need culturally sensitive and linguistically appropriate reporters.Camille Bromley was previously a story editor at the Columbia Journalism Review. She is now an editor at Wired.