Q&A: Curtis Yee

In January, we changed our usual Q&A structure to chat with a member of our leadership team: Deputy Editor Janelle Salanga

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This week, we spoke with Newsletter Editor Curtis Yee, who shares more about his background in journalism, the shortfalls of reporting on evangelicalism, and doors.

When not editing our newsletters (subscribe here!) or interviewing other journalists, Yee works as a copy editor at FiveThirtyEight.

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

First, could you tell me how you became interested in journalism?

Definitely. I didn’t study journalism in undergrad, I was a cognitive science major and I was focusing on human-computer interaction at UC San Diego. While I was in design club, I met Gabe Schneider of The Objective, and we became friends. Maybe a year after that, Gabe posted on Facebook: “I’m going to start a student newspaper, does anyone want to help me?” At the time, I was bored and looking for things to do, and I was a literature writing minor, so I figured, “Well, I don’t know anything about journalism or newspapers, but I would like to make some more friends,” as college students are wont to do.

So I showed up to our first meeting, and it was just three of us that showed up. Eventually, one of the guys who was there graduated early and Gabe was like, “You need to be an editor now, because we’re the only two left,” and I’m like, “I don’t know what that means,” and Gabe was more or less like, “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.” I’ve kind of been wandering through journalism ever since. 

After I graduated, I realized that I wasn’t as interested in the field of work that I had studied as much as I had grown attached to journalism in the two years that I was working in the newspaper, so I applied for a couple internships and got one at Sactown magazine in Sacramento, where I’m from. I worked there for about six months as an intern and three to four months after that, they offered me a job back. So that was kind of my foot in the door of journalism.

Since pivoting, does what you studied still affect your career or the way you look at journalism?

Yeah, 100%. A big aspect of what I studied in school was about human-centered design — trying to design products, whether they be app based or physical products, with people in mind. An example that professors talk a lot about are doors. You open it, and you walk through it, but sometimes you’ve got handles and push bars and sometimes it can be really hard to operate it: You keep pulling when you should push, you push when you should pull. If you take something as simple as a door and it’s really hard to operate, how the heck are you going to ask someone to operate a car, right? How are you going to design roads or public transportation such that people are going to be able to understand it?

So, the philosophy that I was being schooled in was focused on how we can make whatever thing you’re designing as functionable and understandable and as easy to operate for people as possible. And I think I take a lot of that philosophy into my journalism. So much of what journalism can be is writing for clout, trying to talk to people who are going to give you an award. You’re writing to this anonymous voice out in the ether, not really knowing your community. 

To me, I always came in thinking journalism is for people, it’s for a community. And so without really understanding or having the language at the time for it, I was thinking about impact journalism. I think that has really helped frame my understanding of journalism, and then it was really shocking to hear people have discourse about, “Journalism should be for people, Who are we writing this for? Do we have an understanding of our audience?” That should be obvious.

You spoke a little bit about the need to have a focus on the community. I’m curious to know, what are the other faulty “handles,” if we are to think of journalism like the door? What are the things that you think could be improved?

I don’t know if anything I say will be particularly revolutionary, but one of the big things that I think is important is thinking about what our impacts should be and what our core audiences are. A lot of times you see people writing about a particular topic because it’s the trend or it’s what people are expected to write about, but you have all this information that people may not be able to access, either. It’s too jargony, or it’s not getting out to the right communities that need it. There’s this philosophy of, like, “If you make it, they will come,” and that often doesn’t happen. 

If you’re writing, let’s say, about homelessness in a community and that reporting, it’s not accessible by the people who are experiencing homelessness in your community, that’s a problem. Or if you’re not interviewing people who are experiencing that, that’s a problem. Sometimes there is a tendency within journalism to put content out there and expect that the right people will find it, and so often that is not the case. We need to be doing the work of engaging with and living in those communities and working to build those relationships. It also builds trust with the reporting that we’re doing, and then it builds an audience that is able to do something with the reporting. There is an opportunity for the public to take that into their own hands and do what they will with it.

That reminds me about the piece you wrote for The Objective about how evangelicalism isn’t just a white people thing. In case someone hasn’t had a chance to read it, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about that article.

Definitely. First off, my initial interest in journalism beyond the student newspaper was around 2015 or 2016, where there was a lot of press coverage around evangelicals, particularly white evangelicals, and their support for President Trump. I had been raised evangelical, but I didn’t fully understand what was happening in the news. And as I was reading a lot, it seemed like there were all these organizations that I knew about saying, “Evangelicals for Trump,” or “There’s 81% that ended up voting for him.” I had grown up in a predominantly Chinese evangelical community, and nowhere in all this endless reporting on this particular subject that I’m reading is the experience that I have lived my entire life. So many people that I know personally and very large communities that I was a part of at the time didn’t see their experience represented in the reporting. 

So to me, that piece was focusing on how we define the term evangelical. I wrote that piece because I think that one, we often focus too much on white evangelicals and two, by focusing on and making evangelicalism as a theology, as a religion, synonymous with white evangelical politics, we actually end up whitewashing what the religion looks like. So often, we center America, we center the West, in what it looks like to be evangelical, and that’s simply not true. Most evangelicals exist within the global south. What that also means is that, over the past several years, we’ve seen a rise of people who were Trump voters identifying with evangelicalism when they had not done so previously. And so now you see — this wasn’t in the reporting at the time because this data wasn’t out there — this interesting question of, “What’s the causation?” Are the political leanings of people causing them to identify as evangelical or are people’s evangelical leanings leading them to a more Republican, “Trumpian” political perspective? 

As reporters, we have a really big responsibility in figuring out how we’re shaping narratives and how our coverage is affecting the way people think. We’re not just reporting on people as they are, our coverage has impact. I can’t say this with any great certainty, but it would be silly to presume that our coverage — our being the general media — of evangelicalism has not impacted the way that lay people are now choosing to identify or not identify with the term evangelical. I think there’s a lot there that can be reckoned with and a lot that can be addressed by trying to more holistically showcase the variety of people in evangelicalism and in religious groups across the board.

Sticking with that topic, do you have any other thoughts about things that are missing in reporting on religion or religion journalism?

I think there’s been a recent trend of talking about how America is becoming more secular, that people are becoming less religious, and as a result, the United States is becoming more secular. But if you break down that data, what you actually see is that the United States is becoming more secular at the expense of people being evangelical, or Christian, writ large. But that’s not necessarily at the expense of people being Jewish, at the expense of people being Buddhist or Muslim. If you look at the numbers, there’s a strong correlation between the decrease of people who are identifying as evangelical, and the increase of people who are identifying as religious “nones,” which are people who have no religion. And the number of people who identify as being Jewish or Muslim in that time has not changed. And so really, when we talk about the secularizing of the United States, we’re actually talking about the “de-Christianizing” of the United States. 

I think it’s telling that people who are historically identified as Christian are leaving the state traditions behind, and I think that’s a nuance that gets lost. When people talk about social structures and the rhythms of life that are lost because people aren’t attending a church or whatever, I’d be very curious for people to look at the ways that other religious groups that are not Christian have been able to maintain people within their communities and why that is the case — and why that may not have been true for people who are Christian. There’s just a level of specificity there that’s really important.

That’s interesting, because, despite that decrease, it seems like Christianity is often treated as the default by American media.

I would go even further and say that it’s not just Christianity that gets focus, it’s particularly this brand of white evangelicalism that gets the focus. You have progressive Christians on the left — and when I say progressive, that can be theologically progressive, that can be politically progressive — Black Christians, the Poor People’s Campaign, all these different organizations that do not fit within the typical narrative of Christianity that is often portrayed in political media. The fact that so many of these white evangelicals have such a strong role in politics is because there’s a very strong political mechanism that’s been built over the past several decades since the rise of the Moral Majority and other organizations like that in the 70s. 

I think that just goes to show that, oftentimes, a lot of political reporting is based on who is adjacent to power. These organizations and institutions exist and, because they have a foothold in Republican politics or are close with Republican politicians and folks in Washington, that often means that they get covered more, whereas other religious groups may be more diffused, and they may not have that same infrastructure for various reasons. They’re focused on people that have that connection to power instead of looking at people who are maybe more on the margin, or don’t have that access, but are still very important to a vast majority of Americans who do practice a religious faith. And then there are other people who are embedded in these communities, but not necessarily embedded in a way that connects them with folks in Washington or New York. I think there definitely needs to be an emphasis on highlighting those other voices.

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