Virginia Tech: The Day After / Media Advisory from the AAJA

By now, most everyone is aware of yesterday’s tragic events as well as much of the aftermath, including the identity of the mass murderer as Cho Seung-Hui.

While more information will continue to surface, we’ll leave the “breaking news” to other outlets who have full-time staff covering the events.

Speaking of professional journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) issued a media advisory yesterday urging media to use caution in how the suspected shooter’s ethnicity factors into any coverage.

Here is an excerpt of the original statement on 4/16:

As coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting continues to unfold, AAJA urges all media to avoid using racial identifiers unless there is a compelling or germane reason. There is no evidence at this early point that the race or ethnicity of the suspected gunman has anything to do with the incident, and to include such mention serves only to unfairly portray an entire people.

The effect of mentioning race can be powerfully harmful. It can subject people to unfair treatment based simply on skin color and heritage.

We further remind members of the media that the standards of news reporting should be universal and applied equally no matter the platform or medium, including blogs.

A second, follow-up media advisory released by AAJA on 4/17 says the following:

Now that the identity of the suspected shooter at Virginia Tech is known, AAJA cautions the use of his heritage or immigrant status in news coverage.

We understand the need to research the background of Seung-Hui Cho (first name is pronounced “sung hee”) and to provide details about him as a nation struggles to make sense of the horrific incident.

But we are disturbed by some media outlets’ prominent mention that the suspect is an immigrant from South Korea when such a revelation provides no insight or relevance to the story. The fact he is not a U.S. citizen and was here on the basis of a green card, while interesting, should not be a primary focus in the profiling of him. To highlight that suggests his immigration status played a role in the shootings; there’s been no such evidence.

We remind the media that the use of racial and other identifiers must be accompanied with context and relevance. Without it, we open the door to subjecting an entire people to unfair treatment or portrayal based on their skin color or national heritage.

For the record, although I am currently not a member of AAJA, I have attended various AAJA functions in the past and may possibly join in the future. I am all about “supporting the community,” “fair and accurate coverage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” etc, etc.

That said, I have to say that the first media advisory suggesting coverage should “avoid using racial identifiers unless there is a compelling or germane reason” is an odd request given the context of the breaking news. Without official confirmation of the killer, the only information used to describe the gunman was that he was “Asian.” Various reports added other details, such as what he was wearing. But at the time of a breaking news story, the best information journalists had to go on was eyewitness reports, most of whom described the gunman as being “Asian.” That seems to be a pretty compelling and germane reason to bring a racial descriptor into use, at least in that cursory manner. Yes, it would have been unfortunate if that information was wrong, but in this day in age, people still identify others visually by race and any eyewitnesses and victims who described the gunman described him as such.

Regarding the second media advisory, it is obvious that AAJA’s language has changed: “We remind the media that the use of racial and other identifiers must be accompanied with context and relevance.” (No more request of “compelling and germane.”)

That is probably because there was quite a bit of backlash against the request against using “racial identifiers” as descriptors. And considering the request came from an organization that describes itself using a racial identifier (Asian American Journalists Association), it’s no surprise that some people found the advisory a tad hypocritical. (Note: In case it’s not clear, *I* am not saying the AAJA was hypocritical… just saying that some people thought that.)

In fact, here is what one former AAJA member, Christine Suh, has to say:

I hope members out there are as perplexed as I am by the advisory, but the fact that the group’s leadership thought to promote such a poor practice tells me there are members out there who agree that ignoring the identity of the shooter would be acceptable in this story. [full story]

Here is the response from Jeanne Mariani-Beling, AAJA national president:

The comments made by Christine Suh mischaracterize AAJA’s position. AAJA never advocated “ignoring the identity of the shooter” as Ms. Suh stated. Our media advisory, which was issued yesterday prior to the identity of the shooter being released, dealt specifically with using race as an identifier. [full story]

Here is a sampling of other coverage and reactions:
::newsbusters:: ::Asian Journalists Call for Censorship:: ::CBS News:: ::Asian American Journalists Association: Embargo Race And National Origin of Killer Cho:: ::Missing From the News::

There has been some concern about how Cho’s killing spree could potentially create a backlash to Koreans/South Koreans/Korean Americans/Asians/Asian Americans/etc. What about the backlash to the AAJA? Just blog search AAJA this week for more reactions…

All that said, I do personally feel that there seems to be an over-emphasis on Cho’s immigrant/nationality status and I do hope that other contributors to 8Asians will address this in the days to come. Additionally, I also want to state for the record that I am glad there is an Asian American Journalists Association out there with thousands of reporters dedicated to good journalism and avoiding “unfairly portraying an entire people.” I am glad there is an organization to issue such media advisories, if necessary. However, as much as I want to say race isn’t a factor in this particular story, it’s becoming pretty clear to me that in the eyes of many Americans, it is.

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About jozjozjoz

jozjozjoz is a taiwanese-american gal who lives and blogs underneath the hollywood sign and who doesn’t clean her fishtank unless the fish starts to do the backstroke. she is also able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but cannot stop from bumping into door handles, cabinet doors, and anything else that protrudes or has a sharp edge. she does not run with scissors for this same reason. she can pet the fur off a dog but don’t ask her to go anywhere near a horse. or a moth. or a roach. her dealings with L.A.’s finest (aka the parking violations department) are legend, as are her giant sneezes. Other than the two too many joz’s, jozjozjoz is a perfectly normal, relatively sane individual who defies the odds, reaches for the stars, and carries moonbeams home in a jar. She’d rather be a fish… but not in her own dirty fishtank.
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