By SUNNY PAK
Iris Yokoi, an editor at the Orange County Register and AAJA-LA member, has received the first ever Excellence in Journalism Award from the Asian & Pacific Islander Heritage Council of Orange County.
Yokoi, who was honored May 12 at the council’s sixth annual awards gala in Santa Ana, was cited for her work in leading the Register’s coverage of Asian American issues.
“This award was really surprising to me,” she recalled of that evening. “It is really flattering to receive it and rewarding to know that Asian American coverage really made a difference in the paper.”
Yokoi was born in Los Angeles and raised in Santa Ana. After graduating from Pepperdine University in Malibu — and winning an AAJA-LA scholarship along the way — she worked at the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Los Angeles Times.
She joined the Register in 1997 as a reporter and went on to serve as West County news team leader from 1999 through last year, overseeing coverage in Cypress, Los Alamitos, Garden Grove, Seal Beach, Westminster, Fountain Valley and Huntington Beach. Last November, she was named editor of the Register’s Life, etc. feature section; then, in early May, she was named editor of a new website and accompanying weekly publication that the Register’s parent company will launch in coming months.
During Yokoi’s time overseeing West County news, her then-supervisor, deputy editor Jeff Light, asked her take on the additional responsibility of advising others in the newsroom on Asian American coverage. Since then, she has served as a consultant editor, assisting reporters and editors across the newsroom in trying to develop insightful, accurate and fair stories about Asian Americans, whether covering education, crime, social issues or business.
As a Nisei — an American-born child of Japanese immigrants — Yokoi found that covering the lives and stories of others of Asian descent has resonated with her. She convened monthly meetings of about a dozen reporters and editors from various beats to discuss story ideas involving Asian Americans.
These discussions resulted in coverage of such issues as the effort to build a Chinese cultural center in Irvine, a city with a high Chinese American population; and the steady growth of Korean American and Vietnamese American businesses in Garden Grove and Westminster. Yokoi dubbed this group “The Rice Squad.”
She recalled with a friendly laugh that “I told the staff members who are not Asian American that it’s OK to call us The Rice Squad, instead of something like the Asian American coverage group.”
Yokoi identified a key challenge in ensuring fair, accurate coverage: ethnic diversity within the larger category of Asian Americans. That means journalists need to appreciate that some issues may matter more to Vietnamese Americans, say, than to other groups, or that there may be generational and assimilation issues that are particular to certain communities.
“Balancing the diversity with the unity is a challenging goal for Asian Americans and for journalists covering these groups,” Yokoi said.
With encouragement and guidance from Yokoi, Register reporter Eric Carpenter has been working on a yearlong series covering the lives of members of a Korean American family. Carpenter is profiling a married couple in the so-called 1.5 generation, their parents and Noah, their 7-year-old-son, the first child in either family to be born in the United States.
Yokoi said coverage of such depth, and more generally the accurate portrayal of Asian American culture and the prominence of Asian Americans leaders in business, politics, education and community service, makes her proud of her work as a journalist and editor. Her most recent project was leading community leaders and Register staff members in creating and publishing a list of 30 influential Orange County Vietnamese Americans.
The paper published its list of “30 to Watch” in April to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. As Orange County is home to the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam, the Register sought to recognize Vietnamese American contributions to the county’s economy, culture, education and intellect.
Diversity was not something Yokoi thought much about during her youth, she said: “I was lucky to have grown up in Santa Ana. I innately learned that the world was diverse and did not learn it as a word or a concept. My world view was shaped living in Santa Ana because it was a very diverse city.”
Elaborating on the effect that diversity has had on her life, Yokoi said: “The word ‘diversity’ never came into my world until maybe 10 years ago. What made me aware of my ‘Asian-American-ness’ was working at the Daily Pilot in Newport Beach. One of the local assemblymen proposed a bill that would have required state textbooks to explain Japanese American internment as a ‘military necessity’ at that time,” she said, referring to the forced relocation of members of that community during World War II.
“We covered that story, and the proposal was basically shut down. Covering the story as a reporter, it hit home to me that if the internment happened today, I would have been sent, and my American-ness would have been questioned, and that was ridiculous because I was born here. In terms of my Japanese American identity, suddenly it hit home in a personal way: what it means to be Asian American, and being different and yet not different,” Yokoi said.
“This line that we straddle is that, clearly, we are American and we are always trying to balance American values.”
In accepting her award from the Pacific Islander Heritage Council, Yokoi found another link to her heritage: “Having the awards ceremony take place at Lucky House Seafood Restaurant in Santa Ana is very fitting, because I grew up right around the corner,” she said. “My family and I used to go there for dim sum regularly.”
Sunny Pak is a Los Angeles-based web editor and writer. This is her first article for aaja-la.org.