Covering the Atlanta massacre from inside the Korean community

Read in Korean | 한국어 번역 보기

Sang Yeon Lee first heard about last Tuesday’s shootings in the same way as most others in Atlanta: after dusk fell, a breaking news alert appeared on his television screen. Little information was given about the shootings other than that they occurred at three massage spas, two of them off Piedmont Road. But Lee, president of Atlanta K, a Korean-language local news outlet, read between the lines—Piedmont had a cluster of Asian spas. It was likely, he thought, that members of his community were among the dead.

Atlanta’s Korean community knew that many of the spas in that area were run by their own. In his previous reporting on the businesses, Lee had pieced together a portrait of the people who worked there: they were largely older immigrant women preoccupied with surviving in an adopted country. 

“I knew how much these Korean women struggled, how hard they worked, how difficult a situation they were under,” Lee said in an interview, conducted in Korean, with CJR. “For them to meet such a senseless, tragic death.… More than anything, my heart hurt—my role as a reporter aside—as a person from the same immigrant society.” 

That evening, Lee started making calls. He got in touch with a source he knew from prior reporting who had a network of contacts within the spas, and his suspicions about the victims’ identities were confirmed. Overnight, Atlanta K broke the news that at least two of the slain women were ethnic Koreans—a number that eventually climbed to four.  

Korean-language local media outlets including Atlanta K, the Korea Times Atlanta, and Korea Daily were uniquely positioned to cover the shooting. Unencumbered by language barriers and culturally attuned to the tight-knit community, they quickly acquired details of the events and gave readers a nuanced picture of the victims.

By Wednesday, Atlanta K had reported that the four victims of Korean descent were in their fifties, sixties, and seventies. Of the four, only one woman provided massage services to customers. The other “old-time workers” performed secondary tasks: opening doors, keeping up the space, and providing food for colleagues. Some of the women lived, ate, and slept at the spa, and not all carried US citizenship. Subsequent coverage from Korea Daily revealed they were mostly “subsistence workers,” some of whom didn’t have relatives in the US. Such details hinted at their shared isolation and insecurity. They were so close to one another that their children would call their mothers’ colleagues “aunties.”

The Korean press also reported on important details about how the events unfolded. When shots were fired at Gold Spa, a Korean employee managed to hide behind a desk and alert other spa workers in the area, likely preempting further casualties. The victim at Aromatherapy Spa had opened the door for the shooter, believing him to be a customer, when she was shot. The Korea Times Atlanta cited a secondary source who relayed that a spa worker heard the shooter say he intended to “kill all Asians.”

Meanwhile, coverage of the shooting by national media outlets remained vague; reporters seemed reluctant (or were unable) to find details about the victims or pick up reports from the Korean press. Instead, the mainstream press published profiles of the shooter. And when the Atlanta Sheriff’s Office held a press conference on Wednesday morning, the press raced to take down the official statement, which uncritically echoed the suspect’s claims that he suffered from sexual addiction, and which minimized the role of racial animus in his motivation for the killing spree. 

Lee, who had worked the police beat in Korea earlier in his career, was in disbelief. “I’ve never before seen a case where the police suggest: ‘The suspect said it wasn’t the case, therefore it’s not the case,’ ” he says. Worse, the press replicated the official statement in headlines and presented it as breaking news. In most news pieces, the spokesperson’s words were treated as self-explanatory, without additional context or questions. “It was almost as though the press believed what was said to be correct, like they wanted it to be the case,” Lee says.  

To Lee, the official statement was “clearly too absurd to repeat.” He felt no obligation to cover the press conference or to recite the spokesperson’s words. Instead, Atlanta K ran a story that recounted the community response to the official statement, titled: “ ‘Does a bad day mean you can kill someone?’: white police officers’ protection of a white murderer.” 

The press corrected course a day later, but already, public perception of the suspect’s racist and anti-Asian motives had been muddied. The shooter’s explanation for the murders—sex addiction—had been widely circulated, giving weight to long-standing associations between Asian-owned massage shops and illicit sex work. Investigations into the spas in the past week cited suggestive customer reviews and a history of police raids (some of which had been undertaken wrongfully, Lee says), in effect imputing criminality to the women. The media should ask if it is meaningful to determine whether the victims had been offering sexual services, and whether such questions are worth stigmatizing the deceased women and risking harm to family members and other spa workers. This also means that survivors, who have long lived under the radar—fearful of losing their livelihoods and immigration statuses—feel discouraged from talking publicly. “Unless they have immense courage, it’s improbable for these women to want to put themselves out there,” Lee says. 

From the beginning, Lee had feared this sort of scrutiny. Reporters for national media outlets had asked him about criminal activity at the spas, to which he declined to respond. Why speculate on a question that lacks clear relevance to the story at hand? Already, the women have been unfairly immortalized in association with their place of work. The spas could never be a full reflection of who the women were; they were survival jobs—jobs the women might have worked tirelessly to retire from, had they been allowed to live out their lives.

THE MEDIA TODAY: Another day, another mass shooting

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Shinhee Kang is a CJR fellow.

TOP IMAGE: Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images