When Words Fail: Careful Framing Needed in Research on Asian Americans

June 27, 2012

Image from Pew Research Center's report, "The Rise of Asian Americans."

Sometimes, a two-page press release can have greater impact on race
relations in the United States than an entire report.  That certainly
seemed to be the case last week, when the Pew Research Center put out a
215-page report on the growing importance of Asian Americans.

The report had many commendable aspects, including presenting new data on
the six largest Asian American groups, adding to our knowledge from past demographic
and surveys. It presented a
trove of graphs, maps, and tables for the largest national-origin groups. Unfortunately,
it also prioritized questions asked of Asian Americans -- regarding their
parenting styles and their own stereotypes about Americans -- that seemed more
concerned with Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother than with the
priorities of Asian Americans themselves, either as revealed in past surveys or
as articulated by organizations serving those communities. And the demographic
analysis did not adequately cover national origin groups whose economic
outcomes are far less promising.

More concerning than the Pew report, however, was the sensationalist
headline on the press release
that introduced the study to news media: Asians Overtake Hispanics in New
Immigrant Arrivals; Surpass US Public in Valuing Marriage, Parenthood, Hard
. These few words carried sway in hundreds of newspaper articles in the
first two days of the report’s release, provoking outrage among broad swaths of
the Asian American community, including many researchers, elected officials,
and community organizations.

As one of 15 advisors to the project, I felt blindsided by the press release.
Words failed me as I read it for the first time, as we had not gotten a chance
to review it. The dominant narrative in the release reinforced the frame of
Asians as a model minority, stereotypes that the advisors had strongly objected
to in the only meeting of the group two months ago. What we contested in private
then, and what others are challenging in public now, is a monolithic frame that
often renders invisible the struggles of many who fall under the Asian American

What made this press release particularly troubling, however, were the
invidious comparisons it seemed to invite, of a racial group that is overtaking
Hispanics and other Americans in a metaphorical race for national supremacy. As
many critics have rightly noted, this zero-sum frame has been invoked time and
again since its formal articulation
in 1966 -- when Japanese and Chinese Americans were valorized in relation to
other minority groups, and yet still viewed as perpetually foreign. And the
model minority myth has often had detrimental effects, from inviting resentment
and violence
against Asian Americans to masking problems
internal to the group. 

This is unfortunately not the first time that Pew has presented research on
minority populations that has confused matters more than clarified. In October
2010, its executive summary and lead graphic signaled that Latinos were divided
on unauthorized immigration, even though much of the data in the report showed overwhelming
Latino unity on a host of issues, including support for legalization (86%) and
opposition to Arizona’s SB1070 (79%). Similarly, it framed the jobs recovery in
October 2011 in zero-sum
, as immigrants gaining and the native-born losing -- a claim that researchers at the
University of Southern California found to be unusually sensitive to how the
study was conducted.

In the case of Pew’s Asian American press release, the damaging effects may
have been more significant, mostly because there are so few think-tanks that
conduct research on Asian Americans, and Pew made scant mention of prior
studies to provide a sufficient basis for comparison. What could have been a
celebratory moment for all, showcasing the need for significant and sustained
attention to the Asian American population, instead became a contested debate
over a frame with a tangled history.

Still, I remain optimistic. At the press launch of Pew’s report, I noted
that the study is a conversation starter, and this is true in many ways. It can
start a helpful public conversation about the opportunities and challenges we
face as a country, and how Asian Americans fit into that mix. It can initiate a
dialogue among researchers, community leaders, and news media on how better to
report on minority communities. Hopefully, it will also start a conversation
internally at Pew, on the care Pew needs to exercise in publicizing its
research, particularly given its outsized role in shaping news coverage about
minority populations.

* * *

Karthick Ramakrishnan is associate professor of political science at the
University of California, Riverside and fellow at the Wilson Center in
Washington, DC.



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An excellent commentary, especially with respect to the unfortunate sensationalistic headline so typical in journalism, that fosters an "Us vs. Them" competition. When you read viewer 'comments' on various sites that posted the summary of the Pew Report, it is frightening to see how many invoke the fear of the 'yellow peril' again. And, when I read quickly through the report, I did not see any discussion of the limitations of the self-report methodology and the low response rate especially for cell phone surveys.
Asian Americans are now patching up their differences & are now in the mood to boost up the futuristic rockets of the well mannered society having a broad understanding of universal brotherhood. For such good cause certain innovative person coming forward like Charles Wang . Wang has founded Charles B Wang center in New York for Asian American cultural exchange.

Dear Editors,

I am writing in response to an op-ed
by Karthick Ramakrishnan, “When Words Fail: Careful Framing Needed in Research
on Asian Americans,” published on June 27 about the recent report by the Pew
Research Center, “The Rise of Asian Americans.” 

The full report – all 215 pages
rich in original, empirical data – paints a complex, nuanced portrait of a
high-achieving but highly heterogeneous group. It is based on government data
as well as our own rigorous nationally representative survey of the full Asian
American population. Throughout this research project, from the development of
the survey questionnaire to the final draft of the report, we consulted with
and incorporated feedback from our panel of 15 Asian American scholars who
served as external  academic advisers, including Mr. Ramakrishnan.

Mr. Ramakrishnan writes that his concerns are primarily around the
media coverage of the report, and the
headline of the press release: “Asians Overtake Hispanics in New Immigrant
Arrivals; Surpass US Public in Valuing Marriage, Parenthood, Hard Work.”
However, when they had a chance to review it in advance, neither Mr.
Ramakrishnan nor any of our advisers took
issue with the lead paragraph and first chart of the report, from which the
headline of the press release was derived. The first paragraph of the report
reads: “Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and
fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than
the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country,
and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard
work and career success.” The first chart of the report shows the percentage of
Hispanic and Asian immigrants from 2000 to 2010 and is titled, “Meet the New
Immigrants: Asians Overtake Hispanics.” All
of these assertions are supported by vast amounts of empirical data in a
lengthy report that also quantifies the often sizable differences within
different parts of the Asian American community on these and other key
socioeconomic and attitudinal measures.

To provide additional context beyond
our report, we pointed journalists from prominent media outlets toward Mr.
Ramakrishnan and other advisers before the report was released precisely
so the voice of scholars, and any additional nuance they wished to share, could
be included in the media narrative. We invited Mr. Ramakrishnan to the launch
event – along with other Asian American scholars and civic leaders – to ensure
that such voices were represented. And after the release, we encouraged
scholars who felt that the media coverage fell short to contribute op-eds,
articles and media appearances to highlight
facts and themes beyond the scope of our study.

As a nonpartisan fact tank that does
not engage in any issue advocacy or make policy recommendations, Pew Research
Center strives to shed light on important issues of the day by asking key
questions and sharing what we find with the public, including advocacy groups.
We do not advocate on behalf of any issue or alter our findings to support a
particular group’s agenda. Through transparent and rigorously pursued
methodologies, we provide data and facts that add to the conversation and
provide a jumping off point for further inquiry and understanding.

A number of panelists at our launch
event, including Mr. Ramakrishnan, remarked that one value of this report is
that it might trigger a national conversation about a population group that has
been growing in number and importance, but to a large extent has remained under
the national radar screen. As Mr. Ramakrishnan said then,
“What this report is really good at is it presents facts. But in terms of
analyzing the dynamics that produce those facts, this is when you need to talk
to social scientists and community organizations, and other people, right?
Because again it’s a conversation starter and we need to broaden this
conversation, and I’m thrilled that Pew has done this.”

That conversation has begun and we hope it
continues. We look forward to participating in it.


Vidya Krishnamurthy

Communications Director

Pew Research Center

Washington, DC


Interesting to see that an organization as respected as Pew in the world of mainstream journalism is clumsy with its own public relations. In all of the responses I have seen from Pew so far, they have: 1) failed to truly listen, 2) conceded no errors or lapses in judgment, 3) attacked their critics, and 4) acknowledged no role in the shaping of public opinion. Before I elaborate, I want to note again (as I have done so in other occasions) that I offer these thoughts in the spirit of improving the work that Pew does. I am trying to be as diplomatic as possible in my critiques. Others have been more direct, and those critiques are also well worth reading. First, on failing to listen and engage in meaningful dialogue: On several occasions, Pew has taken the unusual step of both acknowledging that they are responsible for everything they have written, and at the same time suggesting that the external advisors had signed off on everything. Although the survey was guided by the counsel of our advisers, consultants and contractors, the Pew Research Center is solely responsible for the execution of the research and the analysis and reporting of the findings. (from the report’s Preface) To be clear, the advisors have always been relegated to a suggestive role in this process. As many other advisors would attest, Pew has driven the agenda from the beginning. The external advisors were able to make some critical interventions—such as shooting down a narrative that Asians were highly successful, and yet were keeping themselves apart from American society—but many of our other suggestions simply disappeared into the email ether, with no meaningful engagement or response. Particular to the charge made in the comment below, we had no indication of what a press release would look like, and there is plenty of evidence that advisors (myself included) were pushing for a more complicated narrative in the Executive Summary of the report. We were never informed of the production and communication process. We had simply assumed that our prior advice would also apply to a press release, and we were sorely mistaken. Conceding no errors, limitations, or lapses in judgment: In the course of conducting research, errors and limitations are inevitable. With constrained resources, the ability to conduct in-language interviews may be limited. We sometimes overlook important past research in an area. And we may, on occasion, give in to sensationalism rather than considering what is important and helpful to advance public knowledge. When any of these occur, it is important to acknowledge them. To Pew’s credit, they have acknowledged the first point in their report, noting the pragmatic necessity of limited language support. Subsequently, however, they have confused matters, stating that any Asian American could have taken their survey. Finally, on the charges of overlooking past research and lapses in judgment on framing, Pew has conceded no ground. Indeed, in response to the open letter from AAPIPRC, Pew has asserted that they stand by everything in their report, down to every single word and number. These are not the words of an organization seeking to exercise better judgment in the future. Attacking one’s critics, no matter how friendly or well-intentioned: In the same letter where Pew leadership responded to the constructive critique from AAPIPRC, they characterize the open letter as a "baseless and reckless" attack on the integrity of their research. Instead of listening and considering the pernicious effects of a model minority narrative, Pew chooses to brand well-intentioned critics as aggressors. Far from seeing how they may unwittingly have contributed to the decline in their own credibility, Pew instead lays blame on the scores of researchers and organizations who call such credibility into question. Finally, instead of seeing the "big picture" in the various critiques and vowing to exercise more caution in the future, the organization has chosen to conduct battles over technicalities, often in a selective and misleading manner. Acknowledging no role in the shaping of public opinion: Time and again, Pew has noted that it is not in the business of advocacy, and that it simply reports the facts. Indeed, they go so far as to label themselves a "fact tank" that "provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world." While this characterization may serve some important rhetorical purposes, it fundamentally misreads the core activity of Pew, which is to present and frame information to news organizations and the general public. The very act of deciding that a particular question is important to survey, that a report should include certain features but exclude others, or that a press release should sensationalize rather than complicate—these are all a central part of what Pew does. Pew is in the business of helping to shape news coverage and, by extension, public perception of problems. To suggest that the "facts speak for themselves" is a disservice to the very work that Pew does every day. I have detailed four serious flaws by Pew that have been laid bare in this process. To be fair, I will admit my own. I mistakenly perceived that advisors with years and decades of relevant experience would be given more weight in the research and its framing. I have also learned that advisors should ask early in the process, about the specific terms of their influence and attribution. These are important lessons that I, and others, will take moving forward, particularly as we interact with institutions with considerable power and unclear mechanisms of accountability. What, then, is the way forward for Pew? Many have offered helpful suggestions, including those by David Morse at Ad Age. Though his advice is framed in the language of marketing, it has more general relevance and is worth quoting at length: "There is a valuable lesson here for marketers, who are often given the chance to explain a campaign deemed as insensitive or insulting only after a brand has been damaged. Do market research. Tune in to your consumers' sensibilities, particularly when issues of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation are involved. Target, but make an effort to reflect nuance, demonstrating to consumers that you respect their diversity. And stay away from stereotypes. Good or bad, you're likely to be hearing from the watchdogs." As researchers and writers, we all play important roles in making sense and meaning of various social, economic, and political phenomena. Institutions like Pew Research Center, with its wealth of resources (over 100 employees and millions spent on research every year) have an especially important role to play. One would sincerely hope that episodes like these prompt a serious and productive conversation about how that "research megaphone" can be exercised in a more responsible manner. Karthick Ramakrishnan Associate Professor, University of California Riverside