Some Yellow Journalism (Pun Intended)

Posted on December 3, 2011


you guys know that i don’t talk about race very often, except last week…and a few months ago too, but i needed to say something on this article so that i can move on to preparing my sermon for tomorrow…

probably more than a few of you have read this article, detailing how many asian students who apply to elite colleges are purposely not detailing their ethnic background so that their applications will not be judged according to an unfair double standard.  now, i just want to start off by saying that i don’t doubt that this dynamic is true and affects the application process to some degree.  yale, and other bastions of liberal education, pride themselves on being completely fair and impartial, ignoring all considerations except the strength of a person’s application.  that’s ridiculous though, because no one is completely fair and impartial.  an education in the liberal arts does not somehow weed out humanity’s inherent tendency to discriminate against those who are unlike themselves, believe me, because i do it all the time.

but despite my agreement with the main point of the piece, i want to say how dangerously close this article comes to yellow journalism because of how truly vague the author is, even from the very start.  come on, what upstanding journalist begins the title of their article with a weasel word like “some“?  is there any unit of measurement less precise than some?  the very definition of the word is “an unspecified number”.  you know when i found myself using the word “some” in academic writing or elsewhere?

when i am not exactly sure of what i am talking about.

and most of the article continues on in almost the exact same fashion. a bulk of its material comes from conversations with students, a few interviews with counselors and admissions officials, and of course, a requisite quote from amy chua.  one physics professor says that he can “imagine” people being turned off by the yellow horde… an ex-admission officer says that she “felt” like asians were held to a higher standard.  by whom, by their parents, by their teachers, by themselves, by society?  or that that she was instructed as an employee of the university to do so?  i would think that those details are rather important.  now, such sentiments are not bad or wrong in themselves, especially if you are trying to describe a person’s experience or feelings, which i’m sure is part of the point of the article.  but if you are trying to establish a broader pattern of discrimination against a people group, you cannot primarily rely on interviews and hearsay, what a college student heard from his or her mother, or guidance counselor, what one person imagines or feels.  that may make for compelling reading, but dangerously prone to misuse.

it’s not only towards the end of the article that some hard facts are presented, how cal tech has a student body that is 30% asian, even though california as a whole as an asian population of 13%.  um, cal tech is a private school and does not solely pull students only from the surrounding populace, so i’m not sure why it would be relevant that california is 13% asian.  that’s like saying yale is 10% asian, even though new haven is like…0.1% asian.  it proves nothing.  and then, strangely, it references the high asian population at UC berkeley, which is 40% asian…but fails to take into account berkeley’s proximity to san francisco, which has served as the center of chinese american culture in the united states for over a century!  wouldn’t it make sense that a public college so close to san francisco would have a high percentage of asians?  wasn’t that the earlier point of the reference to cal tech, that a california school should have a california percentage of asians?

the only academic study that is referenced is the one by thomas espenshade, the one entitled “no longer separate, not yet equal”, which does detail the trend of both white and asian students needing higher test scores than people of other ethnic backgrounds.  but the take away point from that article was that it was, in the end, whites from working class and rural backgrounds experienced the most discrimination, not asians, which i would agree, is a far more rampant form of cultural exclusion.  plus, the espenshade study was from applications in the year 1997 – that was 14 years ago, the year i applied to college.  the american racial landscape as changed dramatically since then, especially in the number of people who claim to be from multiple ethnic or racial backgrounds.

and then, a final salvo of evidence: out of those admitted to yale, 20% said they were asian, and 15% said they were multi-ethnic, and 10% did not check a box at all.  which means what exactly?  what do any of those numbers mean until you can specify the details of those numbers, like what percentage of those who checked multi-ethnic did NOT check asian, even if they were?  or, what percentage of that 10% who did not check the box are actually asian, and not simply repulsed by the idea of being judged by their cultural heritage?  without answering the tougher questions like these, why even use such statistics at all, what meaning or clarity do they bring??  just to lend some semblance of authority to an otherwise maddeningly vague piece of writing?

now, i think that the writer meant more for his piece to be an exploration of an idea, which is the perception of some asians that there is some bias in application – i understand that, that’s cool.  and you might be asking why i care at all, if in the end, i would probably agree that there is some discrimination when it comes to the consideration of asians in elite colleges?

it’s because if you are going to talk about the charged issues of race and academics, you better make sure that what you say is clear, and not full of untested assumptions.  if you don’t, all that does is bring more hysteria, more confusion, and less clarity into a conversation that is already hysterically unclear.  charged issues require more judicious writing, especially from journalists.

at least, that’s what some people believe or have felt, or so i’ve heard.

from somebody.

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6 Responses “Some Yellow Journalism (Pun Intended)” →
  1. I think you are right about the asumptions made in the article. It seems
    One journalism has been leaning towards hype, and maybe writers feel they have to have an exciting headline to,get readers. It may also be worth it to mention that Yale and colleges is general use legacy points much more than they should, with the sole purpose of hoping for more alumni money.


    • peterwchin

      December 4, 2011

      i have moved across the country several times since i graduated, and somehow, the first piece of mail that i get whenever i move is from the yale alumni association, asking for a donation. i don’t even have to tell them that i’ve moved – they just KNOW!!

  2. thanks for the post peter!

    FWIW, i just want to point out that oftentimes, stories are headlined not by reporters, but by copy editors. this can be a source of tension between writers/editors.

    that said, I have a similar but not quite as harsh reaction to this as you do. i don’t blame the reporter for getting some anecdotes and exploring an interesting (and contentious) idea. i think he should have spoken to more experts to address some of the questions you raise, since it’s such a meaty/controversial issue. but i don’t think his agenda is to say that there is asian discrimination. he takes pains, after Hsu’s and Miller’s claims of discrimination, to rebut that pov with others. and in his twitter feed he appears to take flak from readers who take issue with him characterizing the story as Asians trying to avoid “what they call discrimination”…

    finally, last thought…. IMO journalism is such an imperfect and provisional pursuit that i’m OK with stories that don’t meet the standards we have for academics.

    anyway, thanks again for posting this. and i wouldn’t have read the story otherwise!


    • peterwchin

      December 9, 2011

      maybe that’s my problem, that i tend to read articles with an academic, or even scientific bent. but i think even apart from that, journalistic articles that deal with meaty/controversial issues should have less tolerance for unsubstantiated statements because those statements can be inflammatory in their ambiguity. after all, it’s not like he’s talking about the kardashians here, but discrimination at university-level academia – if you’re going to talk about that, you better BRING it! instead, the article can be summed up thusly: “some people feel there is discrimination. we don’t know how many, and we don’t know how much, but some people do feel that way.”

      plus, talking to journalists, you would never think it is an imperfect or provisional pursuit – they talk about it with such vaunted terms, as if they are protecting the free world from tyranny. that’s what the newseum makes you think, anyway…

      • the newseum also makes it a point to recall that apocryphal quote that “the news is the first draft of history,” or whatever they say.

        i actually do think it’s appropriate to talk about about the pursuit of journalism in vaunted terms because the dissemination of information is so important. perfect being enemy of the good, etc.

        where i fully agree with you is that journalists must strive for a standard of rigorousness. it’s the only way to actually inform readers and perform any public good. at some point, when the journalism is ‘yellow’ enough it stops being a public good and becomes a nuisance.

        and again, i really appreciate this discussion! makes me think.

        also, peter you should come out for football tomorrow!


      • peterwchin

        December 10, 2011

        Naw, I got kiddie duty tomorrow!

Some Yellow Journalism (Pun Intended)

Posted on December 3, 2011


you guys know that i don’t talk about race very often, except last week…and a few months ago too, but i needed to say something on this article so that i can move on to preparing my sermon for tomorrow… Read On…

6 Responses “Some Yellow Journalism (Pun Intended)” →
  1. I think you are right about the asumptions made in the article. It seems
    One journalism has been leaning towards hype, and maybe writers feel they have to have an exciting headline to,get readers. It may also be worth it to mention that Yale and colleges is general use legacy points much more than they should, with the sole purpose of hoping for more alumni money.


    • peterwchin

      December 4, 2011

      i have moved across the country several times since i graduated, and somehow, the first piece of mail that i get whenever i move is from the yale alumni association, asking for a donation. i don’t even have to tell them that i’ve moved – they just KNOW!!

  2. thanks for the post peter!

    FWIW, i just want to point out that oftentimes, stories are headlined not by reporters, but by copy editors. this can be a source of tension between writers/editors.

    that said, I have a similar but not quite as harsh reaction to this as you do. i don’t blame the reporter for getting some anecdotes and exploring an interesting (and contentious) idea. i think he should have spoken to more experts to address some of the questions you raise, since it’s such a meaty/controversial issue. but i don’t think his agenda is to say that there is asian discrimination. he takes pains, after Hsu’s and Miller’s claims of discrimination, to rebut that pov with others. and in his twitter feed he appears to take flak from readers who take issue with him characterizing the story as Asians trying to avoid “what they call discrimination”…

    finally, last thought…. IMO journalism is such an imperfect and provisional pursuit that i’m OK with stories that don’t meet the standards we have for academics.

    anyway, thanks again for posting this. and i wouldn’t have read the story otherwise!


    • peterwchin

      December 9, 2011

      maybe that’s my problem, that i tend to read articles with an academic, or even scientific bent. but i think even apart from that, journalistic articles that deal with meaty/controversial issues should have less tolerance for unsubstantiated statements because those statements can be inflammatory in their ambiguity. after all, it’s not like he’s talking about the kardashians here, but discrimination at university-level academia – if you’re going to talk about that, you better BRING it! instead, the article can be summed up thusly: “some people feel there is discrimination. we don’t know how many, and we don’t know how much, but some people do feel that way.”

      plus, talking to journalists, you would never think it is an imperfect or provisional pursuit – they talk about it with such vaunted terms, as if they are protecting the free world from tyranny. that’s what the newseum makes you think, anyway…

      • the newseum also makes it a point to recall that apocryphal quote that “the news is the first draft of history,” or whatever they say.

        i actually do think it’s appropriate to talk about about the pursuit of journalism in vaunted terms because the dissemination of information is so important. perfect being enemy of the good, etc.

        where i fully agree with you is that journalists must strive for a standard of rigorousness. it’s the only way to actually inform readers and perform any public good. at some point, when the journalism is ‘yellow’ enough it stops being a public good and becomes a nuisance.

        and again, i really appreciate this discussion! makes me think.

        also, peter you should come out for football tomorrow!


      • peterwchin

        December 10, 2011

        Naw, I got kiddie duty tomorrow!

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