On Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio gave a joint press conference to discuss the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the city: a healthcare worker from Manhattan, who had contracted the illness in Iran. The 39-year-old woman had behaved in a "textbook way" according to Cuomo. In order to keep from contaminating others, she avoided public transportation and immediately sought out testing in a hospital. While the arrival of coronavirus in New York was alarming, it was also clear that this wasn't an irresponsible patient zero who'd trigger a breakout.
The diagnosis was widely reported, and publications like the New York Post and New York Times provided helpful information about containment of the virus, but the stock photography was anything but helpful. Despite the fact that the patient in question had been exposed to the virus in Iran, the photos used for the articles showed Asian men and women in masks and had been taken in Chinatown. (Refinery29 reached out to the New York Post and New York Times for comment but did not receive a reply).
On Tuesday, news surfaced of a second New York diagnosis (an attorney who works in Midtown Manhattan and lives in Westchester County), The Hill reported the information alongside an image of an Asian man in a mask on a subway. The photo was taken in Hong Kong, not New York. (The photo has been taken down, and a tweet that used the photo was deleted.)
At best, this kind of practice is lazy journalism. "It's extremely disappointing that ubiquitous news sources, such as the New York Times and the New York Post, are perpetuating coronavirus-related hysteria and discrimination against Asian American and Pacific Islanders due to lack of oversight. Something as simple as double checking a stock photo to accurately depict breaking news should be elementary," Rita Pin Ahrens, the Executive Director of OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, told Refinery29 in an email.
But at worst, it serves as racist fear-mongering that can provoke incidents of physical violence against Asian people in America. New York State Assemblymember, Yuh-Line Niou, whose district includes Manhattan's Chinatown, told Refinery29 that using images of Asian people in articles that aren't related in any way to China reinforces xenophobia. There have been no cases of coronavirus reported in her district, but Niou says that businesses in Chinatown are suffering. In response, she's joined with other community leaders to encourage people to eat and shop in her district, taking part in events like dim sum crawls with the hashtag #dineinchinatown.
Still, Niou says, she hears about racist encounters from her constituents daily, and gets them herself. "After I publicized the Lunar New Year celebration in Chinatown, we got a lot of hate. People began calling my office and saying 'you eat bats' and hanging up," she says. "So the problem with using stock imagery of Asians in an article that is otherwise informative is that it perpetuates very dangerous stereotypes without getting the proper information out there."
Kris Chen, a 48-year-old who works in the music industry, has had multiple racist encounters since the news of coronavirus broke. "Twice last week," he told Refinery29 on Tuesday, "I was walking down Broadway in Midtown Manhattan when someone stared at me, grabbed the person next to them and literally jumped back several feet. One of them actually said 'CHINESE PERSON' loudly enough for me to hear."
Michelle Lin, 23, a contract manager, says the images in the Post and New York Times felt very much like the past repeating itself. As a volunteer at the Museum of the Chinese in America, she's seen evidence of the ways in which imagery of Chinatowns across America have been manipulated going back more than a century. "Chinatowns being depicted as dirty and 'other' have existed for a long time in American history," Lin told Refinery29. "At the museum, we have a photo titled 'An Unsuspecting Victim' by Arnold Genthe, where he alters and stages a photo of the San Francisco Chinatown to make it look dirty and dangerous."
Lin was recently waiting in a crowded line at a Duane Reade to buy shampoo and razors when, "the lady in front of me shooed me and told me to stay two feet away from her because 'who knows what diseases I may have.' When I told her she was being racist, she told me she's not being racist, it's called being 'cultured.'"
This type of attitude – the idea that it's okay to shun Asian people (a group that encompasses many different ethnicities, religions, and cultural identities) out of fear of "contamination" – reinforces hundreds of years of dangerous exoticizing. Writing about coronavirus and racism for Forbes, Marshall Shepherd explored the scientific roots of why infectious disease exposure can give rise to racial tension. Citing a 2019 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Shepherd found that a sense of tribalism is an important contributing factor.
"We see it in politics, sports, conspiracy theories, and more..." writes Shepherd. "It is often easier to create a narrative that fits one’s comfort zone, intellectual capacity, or ideology. Therefore, it is not surprising to me that racist or xenophobic views would arise from fear and self-preservation tendencies, even if flawed."
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) posted this message on its “Share Facts Not Fear” website to rein in ignorance: "People of Asian descent, including Chinese Americans, are not more likely to get COVID-19 than any other American. Help stop fear by letting people know that being of Asian descent does not increase the chance of getting or spreading COVID-19."
It's worth noting that the CDC also currently advises avoiding travel to Italy, Iran, and South Korea, in addition to China, but we have yet to see any cases of hysteria-induced boycotts of Little Italys across the country or images of red-checkered tablecloths used alongside a story about the virus.
Imagery matters in our very visual, fast-paced world. And careful consideration of how imagery affects the messaging around a potential pandemic is necessary to keep people informed. Photography, even stock photography, is so important because it is meant to convey the heart of a story instantly. Photos can change the course of history – think of Vietnam War imagery, or the photos from Abu Ghraib prison. Photos can stand as the ultimate truth. They also have the power to manipulate a narrative, for instance, a narrative that says coronavirus is an exotic disease brought here by scary, bat-eating, diseased strangers.
In a recent episode of NPR's Code Switch, listeners shared their stories of xenophobic harassment, and, perhaps more disturbingly, the unwillingness of onlookers to intervene.
"You can attempt to excuse behaviors like people getting out of their subway seat when I sit next to them and then standing for the next six stops," says Chen. "But, if you do, guess what? You're racist."