“How I Met Your Mother” Is Part of a Bigger Problem

howimetyourmother-350Like so many, I was dismayed to learn through this Twitterstorm of outrage about the latest yellow-face antics to show up in U.S. pop culture. It’s a long running, ugly pattern. The underrepresentation of Asian Americans in film and television is bad enough without white performers exploiting warped, racist ideas about Asian cultures. The show’s creators apologized, but it doesn’t erase the cumulative damage of historic anti-Asian racism

And TV and film are only the tip of the iceberg. Coverage of Asian Americans in U.S. political media is dismal too. ChangeLab started tackling this problem by analyzing mainstream political news coverage of Asian American issues and communities starting in 2012. We wanted to know how frequently Asian Americans were discussed, how we were discussed, with whom, and in what context. We gathered transcripts from the following shows, selected to reflect the spectrum of political views that drive mainstream news coverage[1]:

  • Face the Nation (CBS)
  • Fox News Sunday (Fox)
  • Meet the Press (NBC)
  • State of the Union (CNN)
  • This Week with George Stephanopoulos (ABC)
  • The Melissa Harris Perry Show (MSNBC)
  • Up with Chris Hayes (MSNBC)

What we found was both disturbing and intriguing: Disturbing because the dearth of Asian American coverage in terms of both representation and content; intriguing because of the opportunity this presents to fill that void with better information and analysis.

We are now wrapping up our study of 2013, but here’s what we know from looking at the first half of 2012: Asian Americans are extremely underrepresented in political news. In the six months of transcripts we analyzed, terms related to Asian Americans were mentioned 94 times in 15 episodes. Fully 70 of those mentions took place in one segment on Asian American voting, during a single episode of The Melissa Harris Perry Show(MHP) on May 27th. The only other substantive coverage we found took place during an segment on immigration in one episode of Up With Chris Hayes on May 12th.

In the non-MSNBC shows, which some consider more “mainstream”, things were even worse – only 10 Asian American-related mentions in six episodes, with all but two occurring as part of a larger list of racial or ethnic groups. The two exceptions were in discussions of Jeremy Lin and the death of Rodney King.

What about the lengthier coverage on MSNBC? The Up With Chris Hayespiece featured Filipino American journalist and immigrant rights activist Jose Antonio Vargas, and addressed how Latino and Asian American communities dealt with the question of undocumented immigration. The MHP segment on Asian American voting included a panel with actress and comedian Margaret Cho; Jane Junn, Professor of Political Science at USC; Jelaini Cobb, Professor of History at University of Connecticut; and Bill Schneider, Senior Political Analyst at CNN. Junn was part of the research team that gave us the 2008 National Asian American Survey, a groundbreaking poll of Asian American political views, and the only “expert” on Asian American political identity at the table. No disrespect to Margaret Cho, who is arguably groundbreaking but not in the area of Asian American civic participation.

Beyond Asian Americans, the coverage and representation of all communities of color was upsetting, but not surprising. After all, Melissa Harris-Perry is the only host of color. Half of all guests on the shows we analyzed were white males. White women made up 22% of the guests, male people of color 16%, and female people of color 12%. Asian Americans were 4%, Black guests 16%, Latinos 4%, and Native Americans 0.1% (that’s one Native American person).

Now of course guests of color talked about many things, not necessarily relevant to their racial experiences. So to put some context to the Asian American numbers, we also searched for mentions related to Native American, Black and Latino communities. Again, the shows that addressed these communities most often were the two MSNBC shows, MHP and Up With Chris Hayes. Black communities and concerns were discussed in all of the MHP episodes we analyzed, Latinos were mentioned in 17 episodes (85%), and Native Americans in four episodes (20%). For Up With Chris Hayes, Black mentions occurred in 16 episodes (80%), Latino mentions in 11 (55%), and Native American mentions in two (10%). Communities of color fared much worse in the non-MSNBC shows:

jung-dataset-600

soya-jung-175x227We’ll be writing about our findings in the coming months, so look out for more data. It’s a big problem, and undoubtedly a key factor in why Asian Americans are so poorly understood by mainstream America. There’s a clear need and opportunity to cultivate more informed voices discussing Asian American identity and politics in the news cycle. Like the Asian American vote, this is up for grabs. Let’s take advantage of it.

Soya Jung
Race Files


[1] This data set included six months of transcripts (Jan 1 2012 through June 30 2012), with the exception of the Melissa Harris Perry Show and Up with Chris Hayes, which we began analyzing on April 17, 2012.

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