The Media Today

Hesitant coverage of the hateful Atlanta shootings

March 19, 2021

On Tuesday evening, a white gunman killed four people at Young’s Asian Massage, a spa in a suburb of Atlanta. He then traveled into the city and killed four more people, also at spas—three at a business called Gold Spa, and one at Aromatherapy Spa. In total, six of the victims were Asian women. The four people killed at Young’s have since been officially identified as Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun, and Paul Andre Michels; the Korea Times Atlanta has named two women killed at Gold Spa as Julie Park and Hyun-jeong Park Grant; the identities of the other two victims have yet to be disclosed. In the aftermath, many Asian Americans deemed the attacks hate crimes, but major news organizations did not follow suit. (Early stories cited a police report of a possible robbery.) CNN’s Chris Cuomo spoke of “potential bias” on the part of the shooter; then, in the absence of further details, pivoted to “what we know is absolute bias”: the unrelated subject of Senator Mitch McConnell. Vivian Ho, a reporter at The Guardian, said on The Takeaway yesterday that she was “pretty displeased” with the first night of coverage. “I understand the need for caution when it comes to breaking news, and I know we can’t say it was hate-related or racially-motivated immediately,” she said. “But we can say definitively that these were Asian-owned businesses.”

The following morning, many stories continued to tread lightly. “Many organizations referred to the victims as women of ‘Asian descent.’ This phrase wasn’t attributed to police, but it isn’t precise,” Poynter’s Doris Truong wrote. “Not nearly as many news organizations mentioned the suspect’s race. Some coverage did include his booking photo, but if it’s relevant to include the race of the victims, it’s equally relevant to include the race of the suspect.” Later on Wednesday, law enforcement in Cherokee County, Georgia, further muddied the waters: Sheriff Frank Reynolds described the suspect as having “some issues, potentially sexual addiction”; Captain Jay Baker said the suspect had denied any racist motivation. “He was pretty much fed up and had been kind of at the end of his rope,” Baker added. “Yesterday was a really bad day for him.”

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Major outlets quickly parroted these lines in headlines and push alerts. Subsequent coverage failed to explain the connection between sexual exploitation and anti-Asian racism—as Red Canary Song, a coalition of Asian sex workers, put it in a statement, “media coverage that examines the racist or sexist motivations of the killings as independent of each other fail to grasp the deeply connected histories of racialized violence and paternalistic rescue complexes that inform the violence experienced by Asian massage workers.” Rather than center such perspectives, many outlets instead privileged the testimony of the suspect himself, and of police officers, who, as CJR’s Alexandria Neason has reported, have remarkable power to frame, and distort, crime coverage. (Hours after Baker made his “bad day” comment, BuzzFeed’s Stephanie K. Baer reported that he once boasted, on Facebook, of owning a t-shirt with the slogan: “Covid 19, IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.”) Coverage has also, in typical form, deferred to arbitrary legalese and, despite all evidence, remained hesitant to use the phrase “hate crime” in the absence of officials using it first.

Coverage of the shootings has, of course, not been a monolith. There have been numerous articles and TV and radio segments that have broadcast the voices of Asian Americans; Korean-language outlets have done richer reporting than many of their English-language counterparts. And otherwise flawed coverage at least situated the shootings in a wider context of surging anti-Asian hate tied to the pandemic.

Journalists have been among the victims of recent anti-Asian aggression. A year ago this week, an (unidentified) official in Trump’s White House referred to the coronavirus as the “kung flu” while speaking with Weijia Jiang, of CBS News; in May, Trump balked at a question Jiang posed and told her to “ask China.” Anchors on other networks quickly came to Jiang’s defense, but in general, national media has not always demonstrated such solidarity with the wider Asian-American community. Less than a week after Trump attacked Jiang, for instance, Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, referred to the “China virus” twice on NBC’s Meet the Press and three times on ABC’s This Week; the shows’ hosts failed to push back. In the fall, news outlets cited polling that appeared to show the pandemic having a lesser financial impact on Asian Americans than on other groups—but, as Amy Yee wrote for Scientific American, the methodology of the study likely excluded the community’s most vulnerable people. And, last month, amid a spate of violent attacks on elderly Asian Americans, the Asian American Journalists Association called on newsrooms to do more to prioritize the coverage.

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Then came this week. In the wake of other mass shootings, reporters have quickly produced “long, heartbreaking profiles and vignettes,” as Wesley Lowery observed, yet not much has been uncovered, still, about the victims in Georgia. He continued, “The most likely response is, ‘It’s difficult because of a language barrier,’ to which I’d say, ‘So you’re telling me your national publication isn’t properly staffed and prepared to cover the nation where we live?’ Diverse newsrooms are a journalistic imperative.” Of course, there are so many examples of mass shootings that coverage comparisons can be difficult; the Associated Press noted that the Atlanta attacks followed “a lull in mass killings during the pandemic”—which, as the TV writer Jess Dweck pointed out on Twitter, is “the most American sentence.” And, in response to Lowery’s tweet, Jeong Park, a journalist at the Sacramento Bee who speaks Korean fluently, noted that language isn’t the only barrier to covering Korean communities.

Nevertheless, as of yesterday afternoon, the media portraits that I read of the officially named Asian victims, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng, were perfunctory at best, quoting business records more than bereaved loved ones; there were fuller tributes to Yaun, who was visiting Young’s Asian Massage as a customer when she was killed. As Marian Wang, a producer on Last Week Tonight, has observed, numerous media reports misspelled Yaun’s last name as “Yuan,” which is an Asian name. Covering a horrible act of violence is never easy. But the least the press can do is know who they’re talking about.

Below, more on the Atlanta shootings:

  • Guidance from AAJA: On Wednesday, the Asian American Journalists Association issued guidance for newsrooms covering the shootings; it recommended, among other steps, that reporters diversify their sources, understand anti-Asian racism, and “take caution with language in news coverage that could fuel the hypersexualization of Asian women,” including “connotations of prostitution or sexualization.” Mary Emily O’Hara, of GLAAD, pushed back on the latter piece of advice, and encouraged reporters to include advocates for sex workers in their coverage; AAJA said that it had heard such criticisms, and would follow the story and develop its guidelines accordingly. Last night, AAJA put out a new statement reporting that newsroom managers across the country have been asking Asian American and Pacific Islander journalists whether they are too “biased” to cover the shootings.
  • On the right: Eric Hananoki, of the progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America, listed over a dozen examples of right-wing commentators using the slur “kung flu” to refer to the coronavirus—rhetoric that “further contributed to an atmosphere of hate against Asian Americans.” Per Hananoki, “Fox News host Pete Hegseth praised the term as ‘funny’; Daily Wire host Michael Knowles said it was ‘fairly amusing’ and ‘very important’ to use; and YouTube Partner Program personality Steven Crowder posted a video on the platform of himself in Asian garb singing ‘Kung Flu Fighting.’”
  • More context: Last February, as the coronavirus spread around the globe, CJR’s Amanda Darrach tracked the racist tropes in the coverage. And in April, CJR’s Camille Bromley spoke with Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University who analyzed xenophobia in COVID coverage. The media “neglects” and “stereotypes” Asian Americans, Jeung said. “They’ll do stories about Chinatown in places where most people don’t live in Chinatowns. They’ll go to the same spokespersons all the time rather than get real people’s perspectives.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Alexi McCammond, a former politics reporter at Axios who was recently named as the next editor in chief of Teen Vogue, announced that she will not be starting the job after all. Her preemptive exit came after staffers at—and high-profile readers of—Teen Vogue drew attention to anti-Asian and homophobic slurs in McCammond’s past tweets. Critics of the decision noted that she’d posted the tweets when she was a teenager and that she has since apologized; others argued that she was a poor fit for the editor’s job for a number of reasons, and that she clearly didn’t have the confidence of her staff.
  • CNN is expanding its team of reporters on the climate crisis; it’s hiring for five new roles, including a Washington reporter and a digital editor. In other climate-journalism news, environmental journalists of color are launching the “Uproot Project,” a collective that will aim to help advance the careers of journalists from groups that are underrepresented in the field. Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez has more. And Mark Hertsgaard, who leads CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project, assessed how well the media covers the climate movement ahead of a global youth climate strike scheduled for today.
  • Law&Crime Network is suing Court TV for false advertising over the latter’s claim that it is the “only network in the world” covering the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis cop who killed George Floyd last year, “live and in its entirety.” Law&Crime is streaming the trial, too. The Hollywood Reporter has more. Relatedly, a bipartisan group of US senators introduced legislation that would require the Supreme Court to televise proceedings. (Because of the pandemic, last year, the court allowed live audio broadcasting for the first time.)
  • For CJR, Lauren Harris recapped a hearing, last week, in which a House antitrust subcommittee discussed proposals to regulate Big Tech in ways proponents believe would financially benefit local-news outlets. “As lawmakers continue to weigh options and make decisions about how to ensure the flourishing of a robust press,” Harris writes, “its benefits for the people of the United States ought to take precedence.”
  • Journalists at the Longview Daily News, a paper that covers parts of Washington State and Oregon, announced that they are unionizing. “Our newspaper has a storied history in this union town,” the newly-formed Longview NewsGuild wrote in a statement. “Currently, there is no clear plan of growth, or even survival, for staff and paper alike.” The union called on Lee Enterprises, the paper’s owner, to come to the negotiating table.
  • Voice of America’s Jessica Blatt spoke with Eset Sulaiman, a Uighur reporter for Radio Free Asia whose brothers went missing in China’s Xinjiang province in 2018. Recently, local officials confirmed that Sulaiman’s brothers were being detained by the state; Sulaiman believes that the authorities are trying to silence his coverage of human-rights abuses targeting Uighur people. (Both VOA and RFA are funded by the US government.)
  • In France, a media regulator fined CNews, a network owned by Canal+, two hundred thousand euros over remarks made last year by the commentator Eric Zemmour, who said that migrant children are “thieves,” “killers,” and “rapists.” The fine was the first that France’s regulator has levied on a twenty-four-hour rolling news channel; Le Monde has more details (in French).
  • And the massive marble slab that bore the text of the First Amendment outside the Newseum—a Washington, DC, journalism museum that closed in 2019—has found a new home at the National Constitution Center, in Philadelphia. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “the slab will be reconfigured horizontally and installed over the summer on the NCC’s second floor, looking out on Independence Hall.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.