Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics

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

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 studies 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 Work. 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 label.

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 terms, 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.



You've just read a post from Across the Desk: a collaboration of Asian American journalists and scholars. See here for more in the series. Scholars and journalists interested in contributing, please email the series editor at erin[at]hyphenmagazine[dot]com.

Previous Post <
Next Post >


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Karthick Ramakrishnan UCR wrote 3 years 8 weeks ago

People are talking, but is Pew listening?

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

Vidya Krishnamurthy, Pew Research Center wrote 3 years 8 weeks ago

Pew Research Center Response to Ramakrishnan Op-Ed in Hyphen

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


Rickchalres wrote 3 years 9 weeks ago

Asian American Personality

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.

John Jung wrote 3 years 9 weeks ago

The Rise (?) of Asian Americans

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.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Please register or login to post a comment.

Current Issue: 28

The R/Evolution Issue

We're talkin' 'bout a revolution! Our latest issue features key revolutionaries Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama, along with grassroots movements happening today.


Current Hyphen Magazine Issue

Hyphen Email Updates

Be Our Friend

Facebook Twitter YouTube Flickr

CAAM Fest San Jose 2015


CAAM Fest 2015