Cover Ellana Lee, senior VP and managing editor Asia-Pacific at CNN (Photo: Jeremy Freeman)

CNN's senior VP and managing editor for Asia Pacific shares how always being the underdog helped her to come out on top and why representation matters

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.

“When you’re walking into an environment where there’s a deficit against you, you need to recoup yourself very quickly and I think that’s where the education of living in Korea, going to the States, never being the top dog but always the underdog, was very helpful,” says Lee. She chose to take the high road and use humour to diffuse the awkwardness.

Another challenge Lee faced was working for a long time in an environment at CNN where she was the only Asian manager. “You have to do a lot more explaining in many ways, but I’m really proud that I had mentors and bosses who would listen.”

These experiences gave Lee a greater appreciation for her own mother’s groundbreaking path and what she must have gone through as a female member of Congress in South Korea. Growing up there in the 1970s and 1980s, Lee was the rare kid in school with a working mother, and politics factored into the dinner conversation from a young age. “The goal as a proper South Korean girl is to get married and have a family, and I took a different route,” says Lee. “I don’t think I would have been able to do that if I didn’t have the familiarity of a female working.”

As senior VP and managing editor Asia-Pacific, and global head of features content, Lee has overseen coverage of major news, including US-China relations, the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Hong Kong protests and typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. She expanded CNN’s #MyFreedomDay campaign to raise awareness of modern-day slavery, and spearheaded the 2021 launch of a Call to Earth Day initiative with 500 schools worldwide.

North Korea is another area of particular interest; Lee visited repeatedly to film the award-winning 2017 documentary Secret State: Inside North Korea. As a Korean American, she brought expertise as well as potential unconscious biases, so collaboration was key. “My producer, my correspondent, my cameraman and I go in and constantly bounce angles off of each other,” says Lee. “The beauty of working in broadcast journalism is this team effort—our own internal checks and balances that take place.”

Vetting is critical in our age of social media and 24/7 news, when the truth is an increasingly slippery concept and the mainstream media is under scrutiny. “People get intrigued by the fact that you represent CNN; I think there’s a curiosity quickly followed by condemnation at times: ‘Why do you do this? Why do you do that?’” says Lee. “You have to start developing a thicker skin, but I also think it means that every decision you make, you’re really making decisions that you could stand up to.”

It’s a message that Lee reinforces in those 8.45am editorial meetings, along with the importance of a global outlook. For the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022, she urged an extra effort to capture not only the western athletes who speak English but also non-English-speakers who still have amazing human stories to tell.

Lee is influencing the media landscape as a manager too. She enjoys the difficulties and the joys of it— figuring out the talents, needs and career steps of each individual. “It’s this type of counselling that I spend most of my time on, which I actually appreciate, but I don’t think I would have been able to do that if I didn’t have my previous mentors, women and men, who pulled me in when I was going out too far and pushed me out when I was being a bit too timid.”

Reflecting on her younger self, Lee observes that she has a deliberate nature—she always wanted to have the skill sets before diving in—but also had to tread a bit carefully as the first Asian woman in certain scenarios. “Hopefully with the path I’ve taken, my colleagues or people we’re hiring, they can see it and if they can take bolder steps than myself, then it’s full circle.”

“One of my missions before I leave CNN is to make sure that [people think] ‘OK, she created an incredibly strong, diverse pipeline that can take over from her or from any other managers in the world, and they can be sent to any parts of the world that we have and fit right in there and be a really solid, empathetic and clear leader.’ I think that’s my role to play.”

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