Journalist and founder of Data-N Kuek Ser Kuang Keng: “Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be about where you’re from, it should be about what you’re really good at.”
Kuek Ser Kuang Keng worked as a journalist on both sides of the world. Born and raised in Malaysia he contributed to the country’s most visited news website Malaysiakini for eight years before he moved to continue his career in the United States. Back in his home country since 2015, the award-winning data journalist founded training program Data-N that helps journalists to integrate data into their daily reporting. He is also a fellow of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism and a Google Journalism Fellow.
I talked to Keng about mental wellbeing and media diversity on a zoom call in the summer of 2020, in the middle of the global pandemic. The first question to all my interviewees at that moment was ‘how are you doing?’ because the sudden requirement for everyone to work from home had quite an impact on journalists. Not so much for Keng and his family though because he’s been working from home for the past five years already.
Kuek Ser Kuang Keng: “This is more like ‘Oh wow, even more home time’. It does affect me that I’m not able to travel or go out. Last year I made an oversea trip almost every month for a conference or training and now everything needs to be online, that’s a huge difference.”
Happy journalists are more creative and collaborative
When he completed his Fulbright scholarship at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute he stayed in the US for work. But when his wife — also a journalist — was pregnant they decided to return to Malaysia. Back home they both didn’t feel like returning to working in newsrooms because of the high demands in that work environment. As Keng explains: “In newsrooms, it’s more like if you can fit our schedule, then you’re welcome to come. If you can’t, too bad, because we won’t change. We will find another person who can fit into this model better. This is news production. The work-life balance, how do you accommodate for people who have a family, is not really on the radar. Even now the problems of digital transformation and overcoming the pandemic are jostling for attention and a healthy newsroom isn’t the first priority.”
It’s a no brainer for Keng that it would be better if newsrooms would try to retain people who start a family:
“They have ten years of experience. A lot of talent gets lost this way. Whereas a healthier work-life balance in the newsroom will also create more happy and more creative people and when you’re happy you’re also better in collaborating with others.”
Luckily for Keng, more and more newsrooms around Asia became interested in data journalism and building a data team when he and his wife relocated, so he could make his living by consulting and mentoring journalists on that topic. He talks about the happiness of journalists in his consultancy work too. “You need more creativity, collaboration and multitasking when you’re building a digital-savvy work culture. In the past, newsrooms would be very individual, every journalist doing his or her own bit. So it’s not just about adjusting technology or the challenges of scaling, it really is also a cultural and mindset change. People always ask me how they can make their newsroom more creative. The question I ask back is if their journalists are happy. Do they come in and say ‘hi’ to everyone or do they just come and sit behind their desks and start working, squeezing as many hours in order to leave for home early? In the case of the latter, you can’t even ask them to be more creative or collaborative”, he explains with a big smile on his face.
His experience in the US on this topic was more balanced than what he had seen in Malaysia: “I wasn’t encouraged by my boss to stay overtime. And more of my colleagues in US newsrooms are married with families. The discussion about work-life balance and ethics is also different from this region. Here we stress a lot on work ethics. And we feel proud about that. When people talk about Asian work ethics, meaning long working hours, being on calls on weekends and off days, and doing things in a very fast past, we’re proud of that.
We don’t have strong discussions or reflections on work culture. That’s something we might want to learn from the US.
I know from a newsroom in Malaysia that one of the criteria of evaluating journalists yearly is to ask them if they spend time helping colleagues after working hours. That is crazy right? You spend time helping your colleagues or the editorial desk at midnight or during breaking news. Those aren’t supposed to be your working hours but it’s being used as one of the criteria to evaluate your performance. Imagine you’re a father or mother and you’re going home to spend time with your kids and at the same time you have to be on your phone or jump on your laptop to finish a story. It’s crazy.”
The transition from being a journalist to becoming a consultant wasn’t always easy for the data journalist and consultant. He illustrates: “First you need to mentally accept the fact that you’re going to keep a distance to the news. Something you are really passionate about. It took me some time to adjust, not being at the frontline anymore. Secondly, how do you pay your bills? I don’t think anybody in Malaysia does full-time training and consultancy in the media. There was no model for me to learn from. The sense of insecurity is real as well. Sometimes I wasn’t sure I would have income after the next 6 months, that happens to a lot of freelancers. And you need to learn a lot of different skills. In our journalism jobs, we would be very hard on people, interviewing politicians, questioning them, sometimes even interrogating. And now you have to be very nice, explaining to journalists how you can help them to upgrade their skills. And teaching is hard. (laughs). It’s not like you go out, take some footage and make a story. You need to make sure what you deliver is easy for people to understand and relevant to their job. It’s about understanding the needs. All these challenges and difficulties were part of my job in the past five years. And today I’m still learning. This year for example is all about how to move my training and consultancy online.”
Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be about where you’re from
Our conversation takes place just after the Black Lives Matters protests reached global headlines. Keng mentions how the newsrooms where he worked in the US were ‘pretty white’, as most of his colleagues at that time: “There is a very clear division about ethnicity. When you’re talking about issues, current affairs, you’re stressed about seeing things from a black or white perspective. To me, that was very weird. It’s not that in Malaysia we don’t have racism. We do have racism here in Asia and in Malaysia. But we’re not taught to see that division as clear as what is currently practised in the US. In America people are very aware, newsrooms work with inclusion policies and targets. They calculate how many journalists are white or from minority backgrounds and to reach a diverse workforce they aim for example for 30% of the workforce being non-white.
In my country, it’s hard to imagine that. People know racism exists but we tend to not face it directly. It’s a different context. If you ask what is better or worse, I don’t have a good answer.
I think a high awareness of it is good. But at the same time, that awareness might strengthen the current situation, in which we see things always from a white or black perspective. We need to make sure that such kind of awareness doesn’t strengthen the current division or racism.”
Being one of the only Asians in the newsrooms in the US, he’d always hear his name when there were Asian topics or issues discussed: “Ask Keng, he is from Asia”. I realized there are people in the newsroom who spent 20 or 30 years living in different countries in Asia. And they’re white, but they lived there a long time. They have far more experience and a far better understanding of the continent than I have. So that shows it doesn’t always matter whether you’re white or black, you’re able to provide inclusion in terms of values through experience and therefore we shouldn’t judge people by their origin. Even though I’m from Kuala Lumpur, I’m not an Asia expert. South-East Asia is so huge, right? But what I might be able to provide is a different perspective on US policies and US issues. That’s interesting because I’m an outsider to that country. In some issues, I don’t understand why they look at a certain angle and I would suggest different angles. I think diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be about where you’re from, it should be about where you’re really good at.”
Although American newsrooms work with goals to reach when it comes to creating a diverse newsroom, the vast majority of journalists in the country still is white. Keng noticed how there would be discussions about how a certain topic would be from a Black person’s angle without there being Black people in the newsroom. A group of mostly white people would start talking about how to approach the topic from a more non-white angle. And the journalists would ask themselves what the Black people Latinos would feel about the issue. Keng: “I would describe the newsrooms where I stayed as liberal, white newsrooms. So they were quite conscious of the racism going on. And they were quite conscious about the weaknesses of diversity in the newsrooms so they try to include that in their newsrooms. That’s what I don’t really experience in Malaysia here. You’ll never see a Malaysian asking, oh could we approach this from a Chinese-Malaysian perspective? That’s not very usual.”
Data to fight racism
Racism is one of the subjects where data can play a huge role in bringing the changes. Data can give a bigger picture of the situation and the effective solutions. Keng says journalists need to catch up with data science: “For the way we tell our stories, the way we produce our stories, we need to really know how to use the latest technology, the skills and mindset.
We’re not only reporting on the state and the people. We now also report on the tech companies who have gotten more power over our lives. If we don’t know how data works or technology works, how are we going to report on these issues?”.
Keng himself started his journalism career with a degree in engineering. It got him into data journalism because he was strong with numbers: “A lot of journalists hate numbers, they hate data. Some of my colleagues would tell me they’d become a journalist because they didn’t want to study mathematics. So yes, there is definitely a lack of skills. But at the same time, we see a trend of people coming from a more technical background who want to do something good for society, they just don’t want to stay in the lab or in a factory. They want to move into journalism.”
It’s yet another example of how journalism should adapt towards a more inclusive work environment as he makes clear: “When we’re hiring people, do we ask people to show a journalism degree or journalism experience? Or can we take people from different backgrounds into our newsrooms and train them on the job? And if so, how do we tap into their specialized skills?”
He laughs when I ask him about his personal experience of being an engineer in an office full of journalists: “I started with my two other colleagues in a new section in Malaysiakini’s newsroom. And none of us had a journalism background. One of the two had his degree in mathematics and the other one in property management or something like that. We faced a lot of I would say discrimination against us. Some journalists who attended journalism school would label us, saying we’re not journalists, we don’t know what journalism is because we never studied news. The message was: we don’t believe you, you’re not professionals. They used that to attack us when we were setting up our own website, the Chinese version of Malaysiakini. It’s the kind of prejudice we faced back then.
We overcame it by just working hard. We realized we could be different and more creative in terms of approaching news because we were not trained in that traditional framework. Not to say journalism training is not good, I believe it’s still necessary. It wasn’t until I did my masters in journalism that I actually sat down and learned about the profession properly and appreciated the role of journalism in society as a fourth estate to check and balance the power. Learning about what other journalists in the past had done in order to execute that responsibility made me love the profession even more. It strengthened my faith in journalism.
The technical skills, the current problems we are facing, those discussions we have already a lot. But people don’t talk so much about the history, the background, the ethics of our jobs.”
Where does activism stop and journalism start?
During his university years, Kuek Ser Kuang Keng was an activist. When I ask his opinion about the question if journalists can be activists, he leaves no room for doubt: “It’s not an issue in Malaysia or in most of the developing countries that aren’t democratic, because just doing independent journalism is something that’s not possible in those countries. The mainstream media are controlled by the state, or backed by the state and censorship is everywhere. In that kind of context, you don’t talk about whether you’re a journalist or an activist. If you care about independent journalism, you’re an activist. It’s as simple as that. So when I encountered this discussion in the West I thought ‘what?!’. If you want to do independent journalism in my region, if you want to do objective journalism, you have to fight, you have to push back against censorship, push back against the policies they’re trying to impose on freedom of expression, on media or press freedom. So to me, when you’re a good journalist you have to be involved in the fight for media freedom, for freedom of expression. That’s embedded in your profession. You can’t say I’m objective so I’m not involved.
When there is a rally to fight for more freedom of expression, you have to be there because that’s how you protect your profession and your work ethics.
In Malaysiakini where I worked for eight years, we called it advocacy journalism. We had a set of values to uphold. For example, whenever there was a case of human rights abuse, we wouldn’t say ‘oh A claimed this and B claimed this’ in order for the reader to make his own judgement. No. we would tell you this is a human rights abuse, and according to laws or international conventions, this is wrong. So we have to make our stand there. I’m still a strong believer that if you’re a journalist, you might not be involved in a movement like Black Lives Matter or animal rights but at least you have to commit to the fight for freedom of expression, freedom of media and good governance.”