Culture Article

British media criticised for “furthering the imbalance of diversity” by using images of Asian people for COVID coverage
Na Qing
/ Categories: News, Culture, Organisations

British media criticised for “furthering the imbalance of diversity” by using images of Asian people for COVID coverage

Feature photo: BESA communities call on media outlets to stop using stock imagery of Chinese and East and South East Asian people in their COVID coverage. (Image source: Shutterstock; modified)

Two British leading media outlets – the BBC and the Guardian are at the centre of criticism from British East and South Asian (BESA) communities for their use of photos of East and South Asians (ESA) in their Covid-19 related coverage - even though the content itself is not about Asians.

A petition created by BESA communities call on the UK government and media outlets to stop using stock imagery of Chinese and East and South East Asian people in their COVID coverage where Asian people are not mentioned in the content. The statement reads, “It is damaging and hurtful for our British East & South Asian communities and perpetuates the idea that all BESA are coronavirus carriers.”

The petition has so far gained more than 5,000 signatures and has been supported by celebrities and influential figures such as actress Katie Leung, global activist Tori Tsui, ethnobotanist presenter, James Wong, and chef Ken Hom.

Viv Yau, founder of Bee Influence, a marketing agency based in Manchester, who started this petition, said, “Initially, I didn’t make the connection of [pictures of Asian people in] COVID-related articles to how they perpetuate a rhetoric that all ESEA people somehow relate to Coronavirus…it was only when I started noticing a pattern across a variety of mediums that I realised we’re being disproportionately represented in COVID-related coverage.

“This type of racism is so subtle and insidious that even as a Chinese, I don’t join the dots.” 

An article by The Guardian published in the middle of July which sparked the outrage from the ESA communities, was titled Australia’s Coivd-19 face mask advice: can I reuse them, what’s the best to use and where to buy? It was accompanied by a feature photo where a group of Asians walk out from Flinders Street Station with face masks. There is no mention of Asians in the rest of the article. The headline of this article has now been changed to Australia's Covid-19 face mask advice: are reusable or washable masks best, and what are the rules? - with the same feature photo.

Complaints have also been expressed about a feature image for an article published by the BBC, which was titled Coronavirus: 'Almost half' of Blackburn Covid-19 contacts not reached. The photo shows two Asian women wearing face masks standing in front of the crowd. While the article was a discussion on coronavirus test and trace practice in local areas in the UK.

A spokesperson for the BBC said, “We always think carefully about the pictures we include in our articles and welcome audience feedback. We are particularly mindful of the sensitivities involved when reporting coronavirus stories.”

“Given that this article was about Covid-19 contract tracing in England, we think it was relevant to include a recent photo of people on [the] street in England to generally illustrate the story.”

Despite saying that the editor’s desk had been contacted by “a number of readers” with similar complaints, the Guardian had not yet replaced some of the images complained about at the time of publication, which has placed this organisation in the spotlight of this campaign.

This issue has been taken to the UK Parliament. Speaking to the House of Commons via a video connection, Sarah Owen, the Labour MP for Luton North said, “The disproportionate use of images of Chinese, Southeast and East Asian people in masks when talking about Covid-19…plays a significant role in recent stereotypes and abuse [on Asian communities in the UK].”

Sarah Owen, the Labour MP for Luton North, speaks to the Commons. (Image source: BBC Parliament)

In response to this issue, Victoria Atkins, Minister of Women and the Conservative MP for Louth and Horncastle, said, “The perpetrators of hate crime targeting South and East Asian communities and others in relation to Covid-19 are being punished. We know from the Crown Prosecution Service that they have prosecuted a number of people in cases which involved racist abuse on the basis of perceived Chinese ethnicity.

“The Government is always willing to work with interested parties to ensure that we are stopping hate crime.”

In an email conversation between a complainant and the Guardian’s editor’s desk that has been shared with China Minutes, several other Guardian’s articles that are related to Covid-19 were referred to which support the complaint, including one headlined Global report: US reports daily record of 77,300 new coronavirus cases with a main image featuring an Asian woman wearing a face mask shopping in a fruit market in Queens, New York City and another one titled 'What’s going to give?': millions fret as Republicans threaten to halt $600 weekly lifesaver that features an Asian couple who wear face masks walking by a closed hair salon shop in Los Angeles. None of these articles are in any way related to Asian people.

Responding to these complaints on behalf of the Guardian’s editor’s desk, David Whitfield said, “The Guardian’s codes on discrimination says:

i). The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

“Simply publishing a photo of people from a particular background, as we have done, is not discriminatory. The updated advice about face masks that the story mentions applies to all people, and the photo is an illustration of this. It doesn’t imply that ‘all East Asians are coronavirus carriers.”

However, Yau said, “An image is powerful and assimilated much quicker than text. People reading will subconsciously make the links between Asian people and Coronavirus.”

We want fairer ESEA representation in all facets, but not at the expense of our community. -- Viv Yau

Whitfield insisted that “the Guardian does try to achieve a fair balance of all people when using generic pictures to illustrate stories, and I don’t think it would be right to avoid people from a particular background in the way you are suggesting.”

Stating that “it is helpful to be reminded of how readers may interpret images in ways that were not intended”, the media outlet also argues the visual cue of the photo is “the people portrayed are displaying responsible behaviour in the middle of a health crisis”.

Yau continued, “The responses from the Guardian are invalidating and denying the experience of any East and Southeast Asian…this highlights the wider systematic issue that we’re faced with when it comes to fairer media representation for people of colour.

“We want fairer ESEA representation in all facets, but not at the expense of our community.”

An anonymous complainant argues the vast amount of Covid-19 articles accompanied by images of Asian people (because they are related to China) could have led to a “wild imbalance” in COVID related media reports, which is working against Asians. It also believes the use of these images in Covid-19 coverage is not “improving diversity” but “furthering the imbalance of diversity”.

The complainant added, “I am astounded that…you can state ‘it is helpful to be reminded that readers may sometimes interpret images in ways not intended’, and allow these photos to remain in the article on the Internet, knowing that there will be ill-informed and ill-intentioned people out there who will see this photo and continue to associate the Coronavirus with Asian people…your refusal to take them down exposes where your priorities lie.”

In response to this argument, Whitfield said, “I genuinely don’t believe that the use of this single image reinforces a negative stereotype…I don’t believe this is about showing a lack of empathy, or of understanding…I would fundamentally disagree – in terms of the Guardian, certainly – that East Asians are being depicted as ‘the poster children of Coronavirus’ as you have suggested.”

Referring to the editor as a “Caucasian”, the complainant continued, “It seems very unfair and, in fact, to us also manipulative, that a man who is not Asian thinks he can decide how Asian people should feel about this.”

Kimi Jolly, founder and director at East and Southeast Asian Support Group Edinburgh, said, “I feel misrepresented, dehumanised and defamed.”

“Seeing incessant publications of us attached to only negative and victimised articles submits our position in society as inferior and it’s also a form of involuntary subordination.”

It’s literally the only time in my life I can ever remember us being over-represented. -- Daniel York Loh, actor and writer

Daniel York Loh, an actor and writer of mixed British East/Southeast Asian descent, who has been campaigning on the lack of visibility of East and South Asian communities in the UK media, said, “Ever since the start of COVID, it’s just been ridiculous. It’s literally the only time in my life I can ever remember us being over-represented.”

“It’s like the stock go-to imagery of anything Corona-related in the UK media is the ubiquitous Asians-in-facemasks shot. I have seen more East Asians in Leicester in the news coverage of its local lockdown than I ever remember seeing in real life when I’ve been there…what really annoys me is that they do it because they think they can and assume we’re not going to react or protest. So, I’m so glad we are.”

At the time of publication, the images at the focus of these complaints remained unchanged.


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