A protester flashes a peace sign during a car-based protest outside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Los Angeles. Demonstrators across California coordinated efforts in a car-based protest to demand the release of immigrants in California detention centers over concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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We’re continuing our series featuring journalists who have reported on powerful stories. This week, we spoke to student reporter Katherine Oung who documented how racism infected her high school during the pandemic, in this powerful New York Times video piece.

Since Oung’s piece was published, incidents like those she highlighted are on the rise — including at the White House, where President Trump has controversially dubbed the COVID-19 pandemic the “Chinese Virus.” Our favorite quote from Oung’s video: “There are thousands and thousands of cases in Italy, but no one’s boycotting Olive Garden.”

We spoke with Oung this week.

What inspired you to tell this story? 

I was constantly seeing instances of prejudice against Asians in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak, to the point that it was always on my mind. I would see news reports where the disease was still being called the “Chinese Virus.” I also saw news about young Asian people being physically assaulted, including a college student in London and a high school student in California. It became part of my offline life when my friend told me that another student at my school had made insensitive comments about Chinese people. It really affected me, and that’s when I decided to report on this topic.

What are the challenges of reporting on this topic and how did you navigate them? 

As I was working on the project, schools started closing across the country, meaning that I needed to finish the story before it was no longer timely. Soon after the piece was published, my school district canceled our classes. Working on such a tight deadline gave me a look into the fast-paced nature of the news cycle. 

What do you wish journalists and others would understand about the outbreak and xenophobia?

There is a lot of debate over whether microaggressions or insensitive jokes or offhand comments matter in discussions about racism and xenophobia. But microaggressions contribute to a culture that normalizes violence. 

I also hope to bring to light that this reaction didn’t come out of nowhere. Blaming or stigmatizing minority groups for disease is deeply rooted in human history, from cholera to HIV/AIDS to Ebola. For journalists, reporting about that context is important in making sure that, when the next disease outbreak occurs, this doesn’t happen again to another community.

Takeaway: Age doesn’t matter, as long as you have a good story and the chops to tell it.


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Alex Eichenstein is a communications and engagement associate at the Center for Public Integrity.