Code Switch deepens race conversation on the airwaves

Reporter says diversity is more than getting people of color in the room

Has the word “diversity” become a cliché?

Kat Chow
Kat Chow

“Diversity is such a loaded term,” said National Public Radio (NPR) journalist Kat Chow, who since 2013 covers race, ethnicity and culture for NPR’s Code Switch team. She spoke at the November 2 Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) Broadcast Journalist Series fall program at the University of St. Thomas’ St. Paul campus.

Chow said that industries in America, including the media, should stop treating diversity like it’s something that can be put in a “glass window” display, and instead take it “one step further” in having a more diverse workplace.

“I think it is important for people to understand it’s not that people of color are angry. We are tired.”

MPR News Host Tom Weber, who moderated the program, asked Chow if NPR relies too much on her team to cover race stories. “I think the relationship we have with NPR is that we hope the conversation starts in the newsroom,” she responded.

An audience member asked Chow if Black reporters or other reporters of color carry “a burden” of diversity in the newsroom. It shouldn’t be the person of color’s responsibility to ensure that workplace is diverse, she responded, saying, “Diversity in the newsroom is a hot topic right now” and adding that diversity in management is also important.

MPR Correspondent Doualy Xaykaothao, who was in the audience, noted that she and other people of color who work in the media seemingly must represent their culture and race all of the time. “As an Asian American, I think there is a mistrust of people of color in this country,” she explained.

“As a White person, you don’t have to defend your rights,” Xaykaothao continued, “but as a person of color, you constantly have to explain yourself. You constantly are trying to figure out how to say the right thing at the right time. I think it is important for people to understand it’s not that people of color are angry. We are tired.”

Weber said too much is put on a Black reporter or a person of color to “represent” their ethnic group while no such expectation is on their White colleagues. “This double-consciousness” is what reporters of color must deal with, he added.

Before coming to NPR, Chow worked at Boston’s WGBH and was a reporting fellow for The Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper in Phnom Penh. “I joined NPR to help start Code Switch in early 2013,” she told the MSR. “It means to switch back and forth between the ways you’re speaking. It is a linguistic term. I probably will talk to my boss in a different way than I would a friend.”

Chow also freelanced with the Seattle Weekly, interned at the Seattle Times, and worked on NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage while studying at the University of Washington in Seattle. She added that she joined NPR after she learned that they were looking for new talent “to really deepen its coverage of race and culture.

“I always have been passionate about covering immigrant communities, covering Asian American stories. So when I heard about this job, I perked up immediately.

“I think when someone says ‘diversity’ you have to wonder what diversity means to them,” Chow continued. “Having a bunch of people of color in one room, it’s great — you have a ‘diverse’ [group of] people. But are they interacting with everyone else in a meaningful way or are they just doing their own thing? Are they being empowered?”

Asked if her Code Switch team is often used as “race” advisors for NPR, Chow said no. But Code Switch always tries to dig into the “second beat” of the story, she said proudly. “If there is breaking news, we want to take a step back and see what this actually means. What is there to report on that hasn’t already been said?”

The “nuts and bolts” of the story may be fine, said Chow, “but we are looking in our reporting to come the second day or the fourth day of the story.”

“Kat covers the community in a different way,” noted Xaykaothao. “I think she is an important voice that we will have to look to someday.”

“One of the things we are trying to do” at Code Switch “is to help NPR look and sound more like America. We are doing this both on radio and online,” said Chow.

“I think it is important that media organizations like NPR look like the population it is trying to reach… [It is] so important that it is staffed with reporters who grew up experiencing stories [they cover]. The reason why I do what I do today is that I want that [news] coverage…that someone thought about that in a meaningful way.”


For more on the NPR journalist Kat Chow’s recent Twin Cities, see: Public radio and the diversity problem.

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