Interview with Michelle Lee

Rehana Paul Founder and Editor-in-Chief

Photo creditWhat are your thoughts on the current representation and treatment of Asian-American women, non-binary people, and gender minorities (W/NB/GM)  in newsrooms?

Surveys consistently show that the majority of journalists in newsrooms, especially in leadership, are white and male. The lack of diversity throughout the news industry has been a persistent problem, and one that becomes more acute the higher up you go in the management chain. 

That means when it comes Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), especially AAPI women, non-binary people and gender-minorities, we are often the only AAPI, or one of very few AAPIs, in the newsroom. Most of us are in the rank and file, with no authority over editorial, financial or personnel decisions. Yet we disproportionately shoulder the responsibility and unseen labor of ensuring fair and accurate representation of the AAPI community, which is an impossible and unfair task because the AAPI community is so diverse. One AAPI journalist can’t—and shouldn’t be expected to—represent all AAPIs. 

The chronic lack of representation in newsrooms affects our journalistic credibility.

Whose lived experiences and realities are we reflecting in our news coverage, and how? What questions are we asking and which sources are we relying on, to make sure our news coverage authentically portrays the communities and audiences we serve? Newsrooms that truly reflect and authentically represent the diversity of our country are a win for journalism, trust in media and our audiences. 

What is the most rewarding part of your work with AAJA?

AAJA’s mission is to diversify the news industry and news coverage, and ensure that minority communities—especially Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders—are covered thoughtfully and accurately in the media. I truly believe in this mission, and it’s what led me to join AAJA as an 18-year-old college student. 

The most rewarding part of my volunteer work with AAJA is working with and learning from a community of journalists who are passionate not only about the profession, but also about making the industry more inclusive. They spend their free time mentoring other journalists, raising money for scholarships for students, debating and setting guidelines for news coverage affecting AAPI communities, and supporting other AAJA members because they care so deeply about the mission. The AAJA community, and my work with the organization, has made me a better journalist, leader, friend, and person, and I’m incredibly grateful.

What is the most difficult part of your work with AAJA?

Journalism is constantly evolving and financially turbulent. It creates opportunities for AAJA to be innovative and nimble as we help shape the future of journalism. But it can also be challenging to constantly need to think one step ahead of emerging industry trends, in order to help our journalists be prepared for those changes. 

We’re a nimble organization and we constantly experiment and adapt. Our programs help develop the next generation of newsroom leaders and news entrepreneurs, and we’re always thinking five to ten years ahead.

It means we have to set a vision that anticipates changes in an industry that is in a deep identity crisis, which is not always easy.

Asian journalists have been working overtime since the beginning of the pandemic and rise in hate crimes against Asians, which have only intensified in recent weeks. We simultaneously are racing to report on these, leading by example in writing in an unbiased manner, and coping with intense grief. How are you dealing with all of this, and do you have any suggestions for how other Asian journalists can cope?

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Since the coronavirus lockdowns began in the U.S., Asian American journalists have gotten yelled at and harassed while on the job, and unfairly blamed for the coronavirus pandemic. Despite that, our journalists have been leading the coverage of violence against AAPIs, and too many are working against the inertia and disinterest of their newsrooms to push their editors and managers to care.

Generally, journalists are not wired to think about how stories affect us, for fear of seeming biased or incapable of doing the work. This is especially the case for AAPI journalists because mental health is still a stigma in our community. But being a journalist in a global pandemic, through massive layoffs and buyouts, while reporting on repeated attacks against people who look like you or your family members — that can take a toll. And acknowledging that does not make you weak or a bad journalist.

So I’ve been doing my best to remind our journalists that they are humans, and that’s okay. That our humanity and journalism can coexist, and that empathy can be a powerful tool that can strengthen our journalism. And that they are not alone, and that there is a community of journalists who see them and support them.

What can news and media organizations around the world do to more accurately tell Asian stories?

 First, newsrooms need to recognize and acknowledge that they can, and need to, do better in their representation of AAPI communities. They also need to be more intentional and thoughtful about recruiting, hiring and promoting AAPI journalists, especially for leadership positions. 

There needs to be consistent, year-round cultural competency trainings in newsrooms so that everyone in the newsroom is equipped with the resources, sources and context to report on underrepresented communities accurately. The responsibility of getting it right can’t fall on one journalist in a breaking news situation; it needs to be a constant group effort, from all corners of the newsroom, led by diverse and diversity-minded leadership. 

Newsroom leaders also need to build relationships with community leaders so that their coverage is more comprehensive and reflective of the experiences of the community. There are so many important and interesting stories about Asian Americans beyond food. 

You’re a busy woman! What do you do in your free time?

I used to have hobbies once upon a time! But nowadays I just try to carve out time for myself to recharge. I work out and binge-listen to my favorite podcasts. I love to cook, and I’m on a (lengthy) quest to perfect Korean dishes that remind me of my mom and grandma’s cooking.

What is your go-to coffee or tea order?

Strong black coffee, sometimes with a splash of half and half. 

You’ve covered a wide range of topics in your career, from campaign finance to the Koreas. What has been one of your favorite things to cover, and why?

This is a tough one! I have many favorite stories. One of the best things about journalism is that you’re constantly learning new things and meeting new people. The most memorable stories for me are ones where I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone and succeeded — whether it’s learning a new policy matter, resolving a challenging sourcing situation, working with new multimedia elements, teaching myself a new data analysis skill, etc.

What advice do you have for Asian women, non-binary people, and gender minorities looking to go into journalism?

No matter your background, the important thing is to get the basics right: Study the works of journalists you admire and learn how they do their work.

Recognize that your unique life experiences are an asset to your journalism and embrace your uniqueness fully, even though there will be many people throughout your career who will tell you otherwise.

And always pay it forward. 

What, in your opinion, is the biggest problem facing Asian women, non-binary people, and gender minorities today?

A major challenge facing AAPIs, especially AAPI women, is chronic invisibility. This is a challenge that thoughtful news coverage can help improve, by bringing more stories about the experiences and the history of our community to the forefront. We saw this challenge reveal itself in real time in the way news outlets reacted to the Atlanta shootings in March; too many newsrooms were rushing to declare the attacks as not racially motivated because the suspect said so, without considering the long and intertwined history of racism, sexism and sexualized violence against Asian women. I’m heartened by the many news stories that have emerged in the aftermath of the shootings, which have sparked nuanced and contextualized dialogue around the experiences of women of Asian descent in this country. And I am proud of work of AAPI journalists working to bring more visibility to AAPI women, non-binary and gender minorities, including AAJA’s Women & Non-Binary Voices Affinity Group.

Michelle Ye Hee Lee is the incoming Tokyo/Seoul bureau chief of The Washington Post and the president of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA), a professional nonprofit of more than 1,800 members across the U.S. and in Asia dedicated to greater diversity in newsrooms and in news coverage. 

Michelle previously covered national politics and government accountability, including campaign finance, political influence operations, ethics in government, voting access and lobbying efforts. She was a reporter on The Washington Post Fact Checker, writing political fact checks with a focus on the Trump White House, 2016 presidential candidates and congressional leadership. Prior to joining The Post in 2014, Michelle was a politics and investigations reporter at The Arizona Republic.

As AAJA’s president, she is a vocal supporter of greater representation and inclusion in the news industry and news leadership, and of thoughtful news coverage of underrepresented communities, especially Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Under her leadership, AAJA has set the standard for news coverage of AAPI communities during the coronavirus pandemic and the rising reports of violence against Americans of Asian descent. 

Michelle was born in Seoul, South Korea, and grew up in Guam. She graduated from Emory University with a degree in international relations and English. Follow Michelle on Twitter and Instagram: @myhlee

Founder and Editor-in-Chief

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!

We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

We hope you’ll join us.

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