Ellana Lee was in London for meetings in early 2020 when Covid-19 hit. Walking down Oxford Street, she was startled to find the crowds parting before her. “It was like the Red Sea; people wouldn’t even come near me,” says Lee. “That was my first experience in understanding that this [the pandemic] was going to be bigger than a virus story; this was going to trickle down to racism and how people are perceived.”
It was a pivotal moment for the Korean American that reinforced her conviction that a diverse newsroom is important—employing people who can bring their varied life experiences to bear, contextualise news and identify underreported angles.
As a founding member of CNN’s International Diversity Council, Lee has been making a concerted effort to reassess hiring, diversify storytelling and address any internal grievances. “I feel a lot more comfortable today when I look around the editorial table than I was maybe ten years ago,” says Lee, referring to the representation at her daily 8.45am meetings. “We are trying to consistently make sure that our [programmes] represent the world we represent, but you can’t just put anyone on air; people need to come with really formidable talent.”
Lee, a CNN veteran of 25 years, knows first-hand how much the media industry has already progressed. After an internship, she started as an associate producer in 1997—on the same day she graduated with a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from New York University. In 2001, she took a sabbatical to visit her parents in South Korea and, to be closer to them, her boss recommended Lee join the newly created Hong Kong bureau.
“Every time I was thinking of moving [from CNN], there were new challenges that were thrown at me, which I really appreciated,” says Lee, who felt energised to be in Asia, where developments were happening rapidly and she could bring a valuable perspective. “One of the reasons why I’m successful is I think like a westerner, but I feel like an Asian, and I was able to explain the dynamics of what was happening in Asia to my producers in the US.”
Still, it wasn’t easy establishing herself as a 30-something female Asian managing editor in Asia Pacific. Lee needed to act as an ambassador and meet government and company officials; she would have a meeting with a man seated opposite her, yet find him directing his gaze to a junior male colleague at her side. “Then when it came to translating, he would look at me, and it happened so often that, in the beginning, I was emotionally hit hard by it,” says Lee. It prompted her to reflect on how best to portray herself.