Media Diversity Convo Bubbles Up On Twitter After NYT Boba Article Flub

"If writing about boba is that hard, then what about systemic racism?"

A New York Times piece that deemed bubble tea to be mainstream as of, basically, Wednesday incited a Socratic seminar online about why readers found the piece problematic. 

Some felt the Times was simply behind, pointing out the tea with the chewy tapioca pearls has already reached far-flung places such as “Fairbanks f**king Alaska.” But other readers ― many Asian-American ― also pointed to the less innocuous media sin of “Columbus-ing,” or conveying a sense of new discovery about cultural practices that aren’t new at all. Bubble tea was created in Taiwan 30 years ago, popularized throughout Asia and has been consumed in the U.S. for more than a decade. 

The Times changed the story’s headline two times following the original “The Blobs In Your Tea? They’re Supposed to Be There,” and then the paper issued a statement of genuine regret. It was a process that unfolded publicly and prompted readers to point out that perhaps it’s a wakeup call for the entire media industry ― and that a diverse newsroom can help avoid such pitfalls. 

Nationwide, about 12.8 percent of newsroom employees are racial minorities, according to a 2015 report from the American Society of News Editors. It’s a number that hasn’t seen much growth compared to 11.9 percent in the year 2000.

The Times ultimately issued a statement siding with its readers and acknowledging it could have taken a different approach. The statement quoted a comment that pointed out the newspaper’s choice of words such as “exotic,” “Far East” and “blob” can make Asian-Americans feel like an “other.”

The reader complaints have merit. In retrospect, we wish we had approached the topic differently (if at all). There may be a story in the expansion of bubble tea businesses in the United States, but there is no denying the drink has been around for quite a while. ...

This is how one reader, Bo Hee Kim, very thoughtfully put it:

“The language used in this article, from ‘exotic’ to ‘Far East’ and the unappealing nature of the word ‘blob’ to describe a drink well-known to many Asians and Asian-Americans unintentionally alienates this population from reading this article. It highlights otherness rather than uniqueness, defines familiarity through a nondiverse lens, and for me evokes the unpleasant feelings of being the kid in a nondiverse neighborhood bringing ‘weird’ lunches to school.”

To be sure, “boba-gate” is a lighthearted case emblematic of much more egregious instances across the media, and the NYT is far from the only culprit.  

The Commercial Appeal, a local USA Today property in Memphis, for example, splashed the headline “Gunman Targeted Whites” following police shootings in Dallas last summer. The paper issued an apology, stating: “That front page minimized the broader refrain of what’s happening in our country with anguish over the deaths of young black men at the hands of police...Too few people looked at the front page before it rolled off our presses. We’ve taken steps to correct that. But the larger challenge is recruiting a diverse enough staff to better reflect the city we cover.”

According to a new study, major newsrooms nationwide have failed to fulfill an almost 50-year-old pledge to increase the employment of people of color in top positions. Student reporters in the Asian American Journalists Association’s Voices program released findings that ASNE pledged in 1978 to help newsrooms achieve parity with the percentage of staff of color and the nation’s diversity numbers.

After missing the target in 2000, ASNE set a new deadline for diversity for the year 2025. 

Cheers to new goals. 

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