Chenue Her of Good Morning Iowa (left) and Gia Vang of KARE 11 (right) are paving the way for diversity in television news. Credit: Image from left to right: Image courtesy of Chenue Her (left) and Gia Vang by Jaida Grey Eagle for Sahan Journal (right)

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Chenue Her discovered his love for storytelling in his family history. The tales about his Hmong ancestors weren’t written down anywhere, but they were passed down orally through the generations, finally reaching him as a child growing up in St. Paul. 

“For a long time, Hmong people didn’t have a written language,” Her said. “We have no written record. You just sit around and you go on a road trip or something like that, and your parents just tell stories. That’s always how it’s been.”

Eager to find ways to tell new stories, Her fell into journalism in college. Now at 30 years old, he’s an anchor for Good Morning Iowa in Des Moines, making him the first male Hmong news anchor in the country.

But he recognizes he didn’t get to this point all on his own. Her said he couldn’t have broken into the industry without the Hmong women who came before him, like KARE 11 morning anchor Gia Vang, 35, who is the first Hmong anchor in a major city’s news market.  

“For me, storytelling was when we went to bed,” Vang said. “We would beg my mom when we were kids to tell stories. It was either ghost stories—the spiritual world is big in our culture—or she would just create a story in her mind.”

But today, the purpose of storytelling has become much more urgent for Vang. Rather than bedtime stories, Vang is up early in the morning bringing new stories to light in a mainstream newsroom. Her reporting speaks to the experiences of not just the Hmong community, but the larger fabric of the Twin Cities, Vang said.

Vang and Her, who are colleagues and friends, are changing the face of local news together. Newsrooms across the country are confronting the ways in which a lack of diversity has hindered their reporting and broken trust with communities, giving Vang and Her a chance to make their mark professionally. I spoke with Vang and Her on a video call to learn more about how they found their footing in an industry where not many people look like them and about the changes they hope to see in the future.

Entering the industry

Originally from Sacramento, Vang joined the KARE 11 Sunrise team in 2019 as a morning news anchor from 5-7 a.m.

Growing up, Vang said she never really understood what journalism was. But the news was always on late at night in her house. 

“I was always really curious what they did, but I didn’t know exactly what it entailed,” Vang said. 

She said her strongest subjects in school were English, rather than math or science. When Vang started college at Sacramento State she said she felt pressured to pick a major as soon as possible and came across journalism. It felt right. 

“As we were growing up, I watched the news and saw people who looked like me, perhaps, but they were Chinese or Japanese,” Vang said. “While we have a shared cultural background—in what society has placed us as Asian people—I knew that we have a different story to tell.”

Despite taking print journalism classes in college, Vang’s professors encouraged her to try something else. “Print journalism is dying,” they told her, “And it really scared me.”

In 2007, she secured an internship at a local station in Sacramento for two years. She later worked as a television reporter in Oregon, Missouri, and Arizona. Prior to her role at KARE 11, Vang worked as an evening anchor in Fresno, California for three years.

Like Vang, Her also joked that math and science weren’t his strong suits in school, but storytelling always came naturally to him.

“I’ve always gravitated towards storytelling,” Her said, “because we’re Hmong and our parents, our grandparents, and aunts and uncles love to just tell stories—it’s in our DNA as Hmong people.”

Her was previously a reporter in Oregon, Virginia, and Georgia. He graduated from the University of Northwestern in Saint Paul, where he grew up.

“It didn’t really hit me for a while,” Her said about being the first Hmong male anchor in the country. “I was just so focused. I’m very ambitious and so I would just always focus on what’s next. How do I take my career to the next level?”

While he said he was honored to take the title, Her said Vang and other Hmong women in the television news industry like Bao Vang in central Wisconsin and Laura Lee at ABC 6 in Southeast Minnesota paved the way. 

“It speaks to a larger picture in our community,” Her said. “Hmong women have really made a lot of strides and have set the bar high in our community, as far as breaking ceilings into different industries that we’ve never really had a presence in.”

Vang agreed: “People were calling me like the first Hmong anchor in the country, and that’s not factually true. The more accurate way to describe that would be the first Hmong anchor in a major news market,” she said. “I don’t think I was as set on creating a path to be the first Hmong anchor in a major market. I just wanted to make an impact.”

‘I was here for a reason’

Although Vang and Her are not solely telling stories about the Hmong or larger Asian community, they’ve both found that reporting on their community led to highlights in their career.

Vang reported on Olympic gold-medalist Sunisa Lee, who became the first Hmong Olympian, and the first to win a gold medal, during the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. While Lee competed in Japan, her parents showed their support from Saint Paul due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.  So Vang would go live from Lee’s parents’ home where they hosted early-morning watch parties for their close family. 

During the women’s gymnastics all-around finals in July, Vang had a front row seat at a larger watch party open to the public. Along with hundreds of people—most of whom were Hmong, many of whom were related to Lee—Vang witnessed history and reported on it

“I really felt in those days and weeks that I was here for a reason. I felt just amazing afterwards, just being able to really connect with the family and for them to welcome me,” Vang said. “I felt like there were a lot of connections with their Hmong family members who felt like oh, we’re just inviting our cousin over—but she also happens to work with a TV station.”

“What a huge year for Hmong people,” Her added. “To see Suni win and that Gia’s there covering it—it was perfect.”

Four months prior to Lee’s historic win, a gunman killed eight people in spas across the Atlanta area. Six of the people who died were Asian women. Early reports suggested the shootings were not racially motivated, but Her was in a unique position as the only Asian reporter at his NBC affiliate in Atlanta to tell the story with empathy and accuracy.

“I was already pretty well connected with the Asian community in Atlanta. So when all of that happened, I was ready to go,” Her said.  

Her continued to cover the shootings in the following weeks. He was particularly proud of a story for which he interviewed Asian women in Atlanta from different backgrounds a few weeks after the shootings to check in on how they were feeling. When it came down to tracking, a process where the reporter records their own portion of the script, Her hesitated.

“They don’t need my voice to carry their story. They don’t need my voice to weave anything together. Their voices tell the story,” he said. 

Her remembered a manager telling him it was the best story he had done while in Atlanta.

“That’s so valuable to me because that’s why I wanted to be in this industry,” Her said, “ to give people a voice when they need one.”

Diversity on air—and behind the scenes

While the two news stories varied in tone, Her and Vang each said they felt like the right person to tell the story. Vang said she thinks about representing the Hmong community at work every day. 

“I have a position now where I wield power in a newsroom as a morning anchor. When I was a reporter, I don’t think my voice carried as much weight,” Vang said. “Now that it carries a little bit more weight, I’m not saying that I have all the power, but I do think it is a responsibility of mine to say the things that I feel deeply.”

Her added that he’s always thinking about ways to bring in perspectives that his white colleagues don’t have—from pitching stories to writing scripts. 

“Whenever I pitch stories, I like to peel back the layers enough to say, at the end of the day this impacts the entire community, it’s not just communities of color,” he said.

In the Twin Cities, Vang said her non-Hmong audience might think stories about the Hmong community don’t apply to them. She added that there is always a broader impact to consider. 

“How does this impact the fabric of the Twin Cities in terms of its culture?” Vang said. “Hmong people are a part of this community, they have become a fabric of a community of the Twin Cities. So not only does it impact this group, but it impacts our culture—the Minnesota culture in general.” 

While these themes and questions are top of mind for Vang and Her, they added that representation can only go so far.

“Especially in the TV industry, it’s a bandage-fix to throw a bunch of diverse faces on air,” Her said. “Having managers who are diverse, who understand this perspective, goes a very long way. That’s just as important as having diverse faces on the air.”

“Diversity is a great strength and people notice,” Her said. “When George Floyd was murdered, people noticed newsrooms were not diverse enough. Over the past year or two, there’s been a lot of criticism about the lack of diversity in a lot of newsrooms, and it’s honestly warranted.”

When I asked if Vang and Her felt welcome in the television news field, they both took a long pause before answering. 

“For a long time, it was TBD,” Her finally said. “I’ve become very ambitious and for a while I didn’t really care if I felt welcome or not. I just knew that I had a goal and I wanted to accomplish that goal.”

“Although I didn’t feel welcome at all times, I never felt lonely,” Her said. He’s also a member of the Asian American Journalist Association, a nonprofit advocacy group for journalists across the country. “Because I see people like Gia and other people in AAJA just really killing it. I knew I had a community. Now it’s just a matter of finding my own path.”

In his new role at Good Morning Iowa, Her said he’s grateful that his new audience has embraced him.

Vang joked: “I was going to say, do you ever really feel welcome in journalism? I mean, people are always mad at you.” 

But she added that the work itself is more important. In her small space she occupies in the Twin Cities, Vang said she feels like she’s moving the needle. But there’s more to be done.

“It feels like we’re kicking down the door as Asian people, and we just have to run through it,” she said, adding that readers and viewers are “trying to figure out, are we going with them, or are we not?’

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.