This CNN Covid-19 report is why we need more diverse newsrooms

Astonishing lack of understanding of Asia on CNN’s part. That said, I’m glad that US news website is highlighting the plight of this Singaporean student.

Source: CNN Facebook

It’s 2020. And yet, we still see a news brand like CNN bungling headlines and describing a Singaporean Chinese student as a ‘Chinese student’, and later ‘East Asian’, in this story on xenophobia and Covid-19. [Upd: London police release images of assault suspects]

For the former ‘Chinese student’, it’s not technically wrong but it is very misleading – similar to calling an African American man, an African. An African American is quite distinct from an African, just as an Irish American is distinct from an Irishman from Dublin. There are ethnic Chinese people all over the world, in the US, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia and so on. Many of these communities have lived in their respective countries for centuries. The responsible way would be to state the nationality for accuracy.

Source: CNN web story of Jonathan Mok assault

For the latter ‘East Asian’ (pictured above), this is even more inaccurate. Singapore is not in East Asia. It is in a distinct geographic region known as Southeast Asia. The distinction is important. To mistake the regions is somewhat similar to saying the US Midwest (Indiana, Illinois etc) is in the US west (California). And then, there are such comments like this that really spook me of the very poor understanding of Asia:

For context, this user’s comment was in response to my FB comment to CNN:

It’s really a problem if some people in the West need a lesson on the distinct geographical regions of East Asia and Southeast Asia. Anyway, let me just copy these maps from Wikipedia and Google Maps:

Yes, I know the term ‘East Asian’ is used in the US to describe people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent; likewise, ‘South Asian’ used to described people in India and the region. But, this is term is still inaccurate because the fact remains that he is not from East Asia! He is likely born and raised in the Southeast Asian country of Singapore, just like how many European Americans were born and raised in the US.

Just have a listen to Jonathan Mok in this CNA938 radio interview. This is a voice of a man who is Singaporean through and through:

When I was a student in the US from 2007 – 2011, I was struck by how little Americans and the international community knew about us.

“Is Singapore in China?”

“Do we have household appliances like washing machines?”

“Does our laws include chopping off the hands of thieves?”

Those were just some of the questions posed to myself and fellow Singaporeans peers during my time in the US, highlighting to me the huge deficit in understanding of my country. Fast forward to 2020, I think this CNN report on Covid-19 proves that the problem still exists, when professional journalists make mistakes like this.

A lot more work is need in getting the west to understand the nuances and diversity of Asia, especially Southeast Asia. I think this is a huge contributor, too, to xenophobic fears of Asians in western countries, and I hope things will change.

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