Expert Commentary

How journalists cover Asian Americans: 4 studies on news portrayals and the ‘model minority’ myth

By studying research on how the news media portray Asian Americans, journalists can gain insights into how their work is perceived and its consequences.

Asian Americans news media portray model minority myth
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With more than 11 million Asian Americans eligible to vote this year, journalists reporting on the 2020 elections should focus some of their coverage on this fast-growing minority group, which has more than doubled in size since 2000.

Asian Americans tend to receive relatively little media attention compared with white Americans, Black Americans and Latinos, research suggests. It’s difficult, though, to know how often news articles and broadcast programs feature Asian Americans because of a general lack of empirical data. Numerous academic studies that examine how the media portray Asian Americans describe them using terms such as “unseen” and “absent.”

Some scholars have criticized the lack of coverage of Asian American people, including voters, arguing that decision-makers and the public rely on the news media for information about who’s participating in politics and how. Andrew Yang has said his being Asian American might have played a role in the lack of news coverage his presidential campaign received.

“Just as decision-makers may ignore groups that do not vote, they may not pay attention to groups that are rendered invisible in the media, or that are portrayed as foreign non-participants in politics, irrespective of actual participation,” write Rebecca Hamlin, an associate professor of legal studies and political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and her colleagues in a paper that appeared in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities in 2016.

“Recent research suggests that a lack of civic presence can shut immigrant groups out of urban planning, marginalize them in local decision-making, and hurt their ability to access municipal social service grants,” Hamlin and her colleagues explain.

When the media include Asian Americans in stories and broadcasts, they’re sometimes depicted as “model minorities” — more financially successful and academically talented than other racial and ethnic minority groups. The stereotype fails to accurately represent the lived experiences of a U.S. population consisting of people from more than 40 Asian countries.

Asian American groups vary, sometimes widely, in terms of their education and income levels, English proficiency and other characteristics. For example, median U.S. annual income in 2015 ranged from $36,000 for Burmese households and $43,500 for Nepalese households to $80,000 for Filipinos and $100,000 for Indians, according to a 2019 report from Pew Research Center.

A special edition of the Asian American Journal of Psychology in 2017 focuses on the model minority trope.

“One of the most insidious consequences of the model minority stereotype is in its mythic properties,” writes a group of researchers, led by Wake Forest University psychology professor Lisa Kiang. “As a result, not only might some members of the group struggle and remain unnoticed, but the wrongful notion that Americans with Asian ancestry are all the same is perpetuated, which masks intraethnic diversity.”

By studying research on how newsrooms portray Asian Americans, journalists can gain insights into news media habits and their consequences. Below, we’ve summarized four studies we think journalists should read. They cover topics such as how Asian immigrants are portrayed in political news stories, media coverage of discrimination against Asian Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic and how news outlets report on Asian female Olympic athletes.


Political Stories: Media Narratives of Political Participation by Asian Immigrants in the U.S. and Canada
Rebecca Hamlin, Irene Bloemraad and Els de Graauw. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 2016.

This study focuses on how journalists portrayed members of two Asian immigrant groups — Indian and Vietnamese immigrants — in newspaper articles about politics over a 21-year period ending in 2005. The researchers, led by Rebecca Hamlin of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, analyzed 224 articles published in major mainstream newspapers in four metro areas within the U.S. and Canada: Boston, San Jose, Toronto and Vancouver.

Each metro area’s Vietnamese and Indian populations differed in size. For example, in San Jose, California, 6.4% of the local population was Vietnamese and 4.2% of the population was Indian. Meanwhile, Vietnamese residents made up 0.6% of the Boston metro area. Indian residents made up 0.9%.

Hamlin and her colleagues learned that the news outlets depicted the two immigrant groups quite differently. Some examples:

  • In general, news coverage depicted Vietnamese Americans as having a high level of “civic presence,” the researchers write. In California, political reporting by the San Jose Mercury News “presented an overwhelmingly sympathetic and positive image of the Vietnamese community, portraying them as allied aliens to whom the U.S. owed support, and in many cases, emphasizing their Christianity.” The researchers also write that “Vietnamese Americans’ political participation, whether through the electoral system or protest politics, was portrayed as an appreciation of freedom, not as a threat.”
  • Like the San Jose Mercury News, the Boston Globe showed the Vietnamese “as a group shifting from homeland to domestic political issues and relied on Vietnamese-American community leaders as news sources.” The analysis finds that Boston news stories also “suggest a broader national narrative in which Vietnamese-American inclusion in US politics is normal and positive. It evolved from protest about homeland concerns to protest about local conditions and, finally, more influence over local electoral politics.”
  • The Boston Globe’s coverage of the Indian community primarily focused on religion and culture, with 4% of political news stories involving Indian immigrants.
  • “In contrast to the Vietnamese-American narrative of evolving political mobilization and engagement, neither American paper portrayed the Indian community as developing a political voice over time. Rather, political coverage of the Indo-American community was scattered, indicative of a more episodic approach to reporting.” Coverage often mentioned Indo-Americans’ relative lack of political involvement in U.S. politics.

News Accounts of COVID-19 Discrimination 2/9-3/7/20
Russell Jeung, Sarah Gowing and Kara Takasaki. Report for the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action, 2020.

The chairman of the Asian American Studies department at San Francisco State University, Russell Jeung, led this study, which tracks a substantial rise in U.S. news media reports about coronavirus-related discrimination against Asian people.

Jeung and his co-authors examined 216 news articles published in the four weeks between Feb. 7, 2020 and March 9, 2020. They discovered a 50% increase in the number of articles about discrimination against Asians over that period and that 17% of stories studied featured cases of Asian Americans being harassed, attacked or bullied, according to their paper. In total, 471 cases related to xenophobia or discrimination were reported — 16 per day, on average.

News outlets also covered Asian Americans rallying to support Asian-owned businesses and denounce racism, the authors write. “Government and health officials, as well as Asian Americans themselves, made news in speaking out against the continued, high rates of coronavirus discrimination,” they write. “By week 4, 29% of news articles reported these anti-racism efforts.”

The findings in the report prompted San Francisco State University to team up with the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action to create the Stop AAPI Hate Center website, according to the university. The site aggregates incidents against Asian Americans amid the pandemic and has received more than 100 reports a day since its launch in mid-March.

Racial Ideology, Model Minorities, and the “Not-So-Silent Partner:” Stereotyping of Asian Americans in U.S. Magazine Advertising
Hye Jin Paek and Hemant Shah. The Howard Journal of Communications, 2003.

Asian Americans tended to be portrayed in ads in three top news magazines as successful, affluent, tech savvy and academically talented, this study from 2003 finds. It also demonstrates how news advertising — described as “the media’s not-so-silent partner’’– can be “an apparatus that fosters stereotypes of racial minorities, including the Asian American model minority stereotype.”

The authors examined 10 issues each of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report after randomly selecting issues from 10 randomly selected months from calendar year 2000. A total of 526 ads were analyzed, 54 of which feature Asian American people.

Researchers discovered the news ads portray Asian Americans differently than other racial and ethnic minorities. For example, Asian models tend to be shown in the workplace, but Black and Latino models are shown in a variety of settings, including the outdoors and in places of leisure. While older Asian Americans are depicted as wealthy and financially successful, older African Americans are portrayed as unhealthy and financially insecure, note the authors, Hye Jin Paek of Hanyang University in South Korea and Hemant Shah of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“This apparent racial hierarchy applies not only to the elderly,” they write. “In an ad for digital cameras, a young Asian American boy is precocious and can use advanced digital technology to invent ‘’extraordinary things,’ whereas a young African American child sits in front of a computer screen with a frustrated look, obviously unable to solve some problem.”

The two researchers explain that seeing Asian Americans as model minorities “masks the diversity that exists within Asian America. Despite the fact that a large number of Asian Americans are successful, many Asian Americans are also poor.” The news ads also fail to represent the diversity of people within Asian America.

“South Asians and Southeast Asians seem to be less visible in the ads, whereas many other nationalities often included in the Asian American category, such as Afghanis, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Malaysians, and Indonesians, are invisible,” the authors write.

A Content Analysis of News Coverage of Asian Female Olympic Athletes
Chia-Chen Yu, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 2009.

This study, which looks at how journalists report on Asian female Olympic athletes, finds that English-language news outlets focus much more on athletes’ performance, achievements and psychological characteristics during the Olympic competition than their romances and marital status. A key reason for the study had been to gauge whether journalists commonly emphasize female characteristics more when they cover female athletes who compete in certain sports.

The findings indicate sports such as diving and marathon running are more likely to be covered even though Asian female Olympic athletes have been successful in other sports.

Chia-Chen Yu, a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, reviewed stories about Asian female Olympic athletes published by English-language news outlets between Jan. 1, 2000 and Aug. 31, 2008. A total of 266 articles were examined. Yu writes that because journalists tend to give more coverage to female athletes who compete in individual sports than those involved in team sports, she chose to focus on Asian female Olympic athletes in individual sports.

Some of her key findings:

  • Diving, marathon running and weightlifting were the top three sports in which Asian female Olympic athletes competed that the news media covered. More than 15% of the news coverage examined focuses on diving while 13% is devoted to marathon running and almost 12% features weightlifting. “The reporters did not devote entire stories to medalists from the following sports: cycling, track, fencing, freestyle skiing, speed skating, and trampoline, even though the athletes won medals during the Olympic Games,” the author writes.
  • Journalists gave less coverage to Asian female judo and taekwondo athletes even though they had outstanding performances at the Olympics, the author writes, explaining this might be because “these sports are generally classified as ‘gender-inappropriate’ in Western and Asian cultures due to the features of the body moving heavy objects and physical opposition.”
  • Journalists often highlight nationalism in their Olympics coverage, especially when they report on athletes from their same country.

How do journalists portray other racial and ethnic minorities? Please check out our collections of research on how newsrooms depict Latinos in stories and images and how journalists portray shooters of different races and religious backgrounds.

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