‘From an informed place’: ‘Bamboo ceiling’ headline writer responds to criticism with context

As actors Steven Yeun and Youn Yuh-jung made Oscars history Monday, The Hollywood Reporter published the headline, “Oscars: Diverse field sees Asian actors shatter a bamboo ceiling.”

Rankled readers criticized the publication on Twitter, saying the term “bamboo ceiling” was offensive. Many were unaware that the term originated from leadership strategist Jane Hyun, who used it to explain challenges Asian Americans face climbing the corporate ladder

The Asian American Journalists Association also weighed in, opening a dialogue about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) representation in media and a re-evaluation of language.

Rebecca Sun, diversity and inclusion senior editor at the Hollywood Reporter, updated her article to explain the origin of the term and took ownership of the headline on Twitter

On the advice of her editor, she also changed the headline to: “Oscars: Diverse field sees Asian actors finally break through.”  

Sun shared more about the reaction to her explanation, as well as how journalists can draw the line between cultural representation and appropriation, in an email interview with the Journalism Institute.

How did you come up with the original headline for your Oscars piece on Asian actors breaking through? Did you discuss the term “bamboo ceiling” with anyone before publication? 

Rebecca Sun is the senior editor, diversity and inclusion at the Hollywood Reporter

Sun: It’s common to use idiomatic references in headlines, so in order to describe this incidence of Asian actors finally being recognized for their contributions in acclaimed films, the term “bamboo ceiling” (a common term within the Asian American community describing our systemic barriers to higher levels of leadership and recognition) honestly came pretty instinctually to me.

The online editor who checked my post pre-publication did ask me if anyone would find the term offensive, but deferred to me on the decision to proceed with the headline. 

What has been the response to your explanation on why you originally used the phrase “bamboo ceiling” and then ultimately changed the headline?

Sun: I haven’t been able to look at all of the comments, but there are different camps: Some still don’t like it no matter what, some remain uncomfortable with the phrase but were mollified by the context, some wanted the original headline restored, and others used the headline to bring awareness and education to the workplace discrimination statistics and issues behind the term (the latter was my favorite type of response). I think some people deleted their initial criticism after context was provided. 

How do you manage online attacks or trolling? What type of support does your newsroom offer in situations like this?

Sun: I think my personal strategy is a bit atypical, which is that I don’t regularly check my social media mentions. Viral controversies involving coverage are handled with the editor(s) on a case-by-case basis, but in this case I’m glad I was able to respond with some transparency and context.

What does your role as senior editor, diversity & inclusion entail?

Sun: I cover the entertainment industry through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion. This is most directly applied through stories I report on and write myself, although I also weigh in on and help edit colleagues’ coverage as needed. In addition, I am the editorial liaison for our mentorship program for students from underserved backgrounds.

Can you share your top tips for how journalists can understand the line between cultural representation and appropriation in language?

Sun: Authenticity and [our] own voices matter. As commentators pointed out, it mattered (to some people) that the person using this term to describe Asian Americans is herself a member of the community. That increases the chances that the language wielded comes from an informed place. However, my other tip is to consider the average knowledge base of your audience. My blind spot led me to overestimate the general public’s familiarity with a term that was very familiar to me. I believe in normalizing the idea of a diverse readership, so I maintain that the usage of the term was appropriate, but from the outset I should have provided context in my story for those who had not yet been exposed to the phrase.

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