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Why Asians in masks should not be the “face” of the coronavirus

Leaning on visual racist tropes to cover the Covid-19 outbreak is dangerous.

Signs in an Italian pharmacy advise customers that respiratory masks are sold out in Rome, Italy, on January 29, 2020.
Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images
Nylah Burton is an award-winning travel, entertainment, and lifestyle writer with bylines in New York Magazine, Travel + Leisure, and Vogue.

If you’ve clicked on a coronavirus story, you’ve probably seen it: an Asian person in a face mask looking alone, solemn, often wandering around some urban dystopia.

Although the Covid-19 disease outbreak has now affected more than 70 countries around the world, numerous media outlets have associated the coronavirus with Asians, often using photography portraying them as the “face” of the crisis.

While the outbreak started in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, it has reached every continent except Antarctica, according to the latest count by Al Jazeera. In the United States, there have been more than 160 confirmed cases of the virus. To be clear, the outbreak is not confined to — nor can be blamed on — Asian people.

Yet on Sunday, Forbes published a photo of an Asian person wearing a mask to report that New York had confirmed its first coronavirus patient (it has since updated the article and changed the photo). On the same day, on a story on the first case in Scotland, Metro used a photograph of an Asian tourist in a mask visiting a castle. The New York Times has also used images like these, although readers have reported that they were later changed to more neutral photos.

In one case, the photo used wasn’t even in the right location. In reporting on Manhattan’s first confirmed coronavirus case, the New York Post on Sunday used a picture of an Asian man wearing a face mask in Queens. This decision was made even though the affected person was actually a Manhattan woman in her 30s who contracted the virus from Iran.

Kainaz Amaria, Vox’s visuals editor who has been recognized for her ethical practices within photojournalism, says the repeated use of these photos could add to the xenophobia Asians are already facing due to the outbreak. “In regard to editorial accuracy, meaning how close does the photography relate to the content of the story, this picture is from a different location and does not relate to any element of the story,” she says. “As picture editors, we need to apply what we know about the history of xenophobia and public health into our editorial decisions when it comes to stories about coronavirus.”

As Merlin Chowkwanyun, historian and assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, recently told Vox, xenophobia has been intertwined with public health discourse for a very long time, against many different groups. “Historically, in both popular and scientific discourse, contagious disease has often been linked, in a blanket way, to population groups thought to be ‘outsiders,’” he said.

And Natalia Molina, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Southern California, told Vox’s Sean Illing that society has “always used race as an organizing principle to define problems in the economy, problems in the culture, problems in the political domain. When there’s a pandemic or any kind of health crisis, our existing ideas about race naturally shape how we process and frame the situation.”

Using photos like the Post did only further spreads cultural alienation by validating racist tropes that not only contribute to hostility toward and bigotry against Asian people but also threaten public health. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, there have been innumerable examples of xenophobia directed toward Asian American communities — including refusing to patronize Asian-owned or -staffed businesses, verbal harassment, racist statements from institutions like the University of California Berkeley, and physical assault.

Amaria says that for these kinds of stories — ones mired in issues of identity and discrimination — news outlets must ask themselves, “Are the photographs further stigmatizing a particular community or perpetuating stereotypes?” Defaulting to using photos of Asian Americans or scenes in Chinatowns to report broadly on the coronavirus pandemic “is an editorially and ethically questionable decision,” she adds.

Instead of falling back on Asian faces, Amaria says it’s the media’s responsibility to show how numerous, diverse communities are shifting their behavior to stay safe — as well as to include images of federal and local officials, medical professionals, and efforts being made by the World Health Organization. “Showing a variety of images that reinforces this collective public health emergency can go a long way toward the public working together as opposed to feeling scared of each other,” she says.

When it comes to culturally sensitive, diverse, and ethical photographs, media outlets must also consider the background of the newswire agencies they rely on, including AP, Getty Images, Reuters, and more. In September 2018, Amaria reported on how many of these agencies are not representative of our growing diverse audience. “News photographs can, and often do, show us what biases mainstream media has,” she says. “Editors decide what communities get attention and what type of attention they get. All too often, underrepresented communities get attention when there is a crisis — creating a sense of ‘otherness.’ All journalists need to be attuned to this aspect of our tradition.”

For news outlets that want to prevent spreading harmful tropes and threatening public health, Amaria recommends following the Asian American Journalism Association’s guidelines on how to ensure accurate and fair portrayal of Asians and Asian Americans.

And in the Vox newsroom, Amaria said she stresses that “if a story is sensitive and/or depicts an underrepresented community then I’d like to have a conversation about our visual decisions before the story is published and promoted.”

“Having a good culture of collaboration and constructive criticism can go a long way” toward employees feeling safe and comfortable enough to raise these concerns, she says.

Media consumers can also use their voices to help stop these unethical photojournalism practices. For example, Claire Trần went viral this week for making fun of the irrelevant and blatantly biased photos by demanding that outlets “at least make us look hot.”

“Newsrooms and journalists are getting the message, and in some cases news outlets like the New York Times have been forced to respond to concerns from their audience,” Amaria says, referring to the paper publishing a graphic photo of dead bodies in Nairobi last year that many found insensitive and disturbing.

While feedback does matter, the ultimate responsibility of ethical journalism shouldn’t lie with readers. “Journalists need to be attuned to their biases. We all have them and must work to reverse the harmful stereotypes our point of view has created,” Amaria says. “We need to retrain ourselves to better reflect a diverse audience.”

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