News outlets contribute to anti-Asian racism with careless stock photos on coronavirus coverage

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The spread of the novel coronavirus strain COVID-19 has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in anti-Asian discrimination across the U.S., and news stories featuring photos of people of Asian descent unrelated to the context of the reporting help to perpetuate this racism.

During the past couple of months, people of Asian descent have been physically attacked due to racist associations with the coronavirus outbreak, which reportedly originated in Wuhan, China. In other instances, people have been harassed on trains and on subways. Businesses have been hurt as well, as customers have begun to avoid establishments associated with the Asian community.

Given the uptick in anti-Asian discrimination, the Asian American Journalists Association recently provided news outlets with guidelines about what to avoid when reporting on coronavirus. In particular, AAJA warned that context-free images of people of Asian descent wearing face masks could help to spread anti-Asian racism by associating them with the disease. The guidelines explain that people often wear face masks in Asian countries to protect themselves from pollution and for other reasons that have nothing to do with the current spread of coronavirus.

Users on Twitter observed that tweets from news outlets such as The Hill and the New York Post featured images of people wearing face masks that were completely unrelated to the accompanying reporting. For example, New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi noted that a New York Post article on the first case of coronavirus reported in Manhattan included an image of a man of Asian descent wearing a face mask in Queens.

An article from The Hill reporting on a coronavirus death in Washington state included a photo of an Asian man wearing a face mask with no evident connection to that case.

The Hill also deleted a tweet promoting an article about cases of coronavirus in New York after Teen Vogue's Gabe Bergado pointed out that the attached image was of a man wearing a face mask and riding a subway that was not in New York City.

Other outlets have featured similar photos without context. For example, a recent tweet and article from Reuters about the economic impact of coronavirus included a photo of a man of Asian descent wearing a face mask outside the New York Stock Exchange. Another tweet from The Wall Street Journal about the first coronavirus death in Washington state featured an image of two men of Asian descent wearing face masks in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

Some of the same outlets that have covered the rise in anti-Asian discrimination have also presented their own reporting on coronavirus in careless ways. For example, CNN has documented the increase in anti-Asian discrimination, yet a recent tweet linking to an opinion piece on how the virus exposes flaws in the U.S. health care system included a generic image of women of Asian descent wearing face masks.

The Los Angeles Times has also noted the rise in anti-Asian discrimination, yet a tweet on a new case of coronavirus in Los Angeles included a photo of a group of Asian people wearing face masks in an airport.

Going forward, news organizations should ensure that the images attached to their reporting on coronavirus are relevant and include the proper context about the impacts of the virus -- rather than contribute to a racist backlash.

Clarification (3/5/20): This piece has been updated to include the name of the reporter, Gabe Bergado, who first pointed out a careless stock photo used in a now-deleted tweet from The Hill. Bergado was originally identified as “a Twitter user.”