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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8 Responses to “Virginia Tech: The Day After / Media Advisory from the AAJA”



  • next time a muslim kills (or tries to kill) a bunch of americans on a college campus… i hope they plaster a picture of his face on every major newspaper…

    oh wait… that already happened… i don’t recall seeing a picture of his face….

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,186946,00.html


  • When I first read the AAJA message I noticed it was worded a bit strangely but I just took it to mean: “Do not jump to conclusions and do not use racial stereotypes when writing your stories. Stick to the facts.” Not everyone saw it that way though. And the timing was unfortunate. We did not know much about the shooter so we would not know what information was relevant and what wasn’t. But this is the age of the blogger so lots of people started speculating and started throwing around theories. An example about one notable person doing so is here:
    http://www.salon.com/tech/htww/2007/04/17/vtech_korea/
    It’s partially about Debbie Schlussel and how she made some “interesting” assumptions. Actually, she still is and other bloggers are too, concerning Cho’s possible Muslim connections. I’d link to it but I don’t really want to drive more traffic in her direction.
    I’ve noticed that some of mainstream media stories (the AP and CNN mainly) are now keeping the references to Korea at a minimum although that’s probably because everyone knows who he is now.
    This story really showed (to me anyway) how the internet can both inform and misinform you and that you have to be patient to get the facts.
    Anyway, this is a terrible tragedy and I hope that the survivors and friends and family of those who have died get all the support they can from those around them.


  • For any observer to bring race into the discussion — as if that would help determine why this guy did it — is ridiculous. People who commit acts of violence — school rampages, rape, child sexual assault and abuse — have more than likely been a victim themselves. I recommend the book “Violence” by James Gilligan for the best explanation of “why it happens” that I’ve ever read.


  • My TV was on all night yesterday and I don’t think the shooter’s race was overemphasized. To report the news comprehensively, the media has to give a complete profile of the shooter and if they hadn’t included race and his immigration status, that would have been even more weird. His race is not relevant to the incident, but revealing his racial identity IS part of the picture and you can’t omit it just to attempt to be politically correct.

    I still doubt whether there will really be a backlash against South Koreans after this. If anything, there is more of a backlash against “loner” students than there is against Koreans. The real emphasis of the media’s portrayal of his bio was on his disturbed mental state, and not on his race. Seriously. I watched a LOT of different mediums last night and I just didn’t get that impression.

    Only some of the bloggers out there, especially the Asian bloggers, have really turned this into a race issue.

    Don’t worry, Joz, I don’t mean you. You’re doing a fantastic job covering this!!


  • I believe the problem was the intial information provided by the Chicago Times alleging the individual was a Chinese immigrant in his 20s who immigrated to the area through San Francisco.

    I think we see the problem from the get go.

  • Oliver Williamson Jr


    When word of the story first broke, my very first reaction was that the perpetrator was probably on some kind of anti-depressant. So many of these kinds of crimes in this day and age involve psychotropic drugs. One of the Columbine perpetrators was on an anti-depressant called luvox. So much for the effectiveness of drugs.

    It’s entirely possible that Cho was on one of these things as well. Perhaps, this is the real issue. I hope we can find out. You might find last night’s show on Coast-to-Coast AM interesting in this respect. Here’s the link.

    http://www.coasttocoastam.com/shows/2007/04/18.html#recap


  • Perhaps it’s because I’m getting the news in Canada, but I too don’t see that much emphasis placed on Cho’s nationality/ resident status. I think it’s the fact that when rumours were swirling about the identity, phrases like “resident alien” and “immigrant” were used, and him being a visible minority had already skewed people’s perception. Even when the media makes an error – it’s still difficult to correct most people’s perception of what really is happening because despite the tragic events – people would rather get the just of it and go about their day.

    The news up here has emphasized his loner behaviour and depressed/ disturbed state.


  • Folks, I appreciate your perspectives, and I understand that they will be different than mine depending on region, etc.

    Mine is that I was watching the national news on the day of the the shootings and the day after, and that Cho’s Korean ethnicity was mentioned almost as often as his name. “South Korean immigrant Cho….” Today, they did that much less.

    I am glad the AAJA raised the issue. I remember the Oklahoma City bombing 12 years ago, on the day of the bombing the media speculated loudly that it was probably an Arab. Did they actually close the boarders to people of Arab descent? I’m not sure, but I remember hearing about it.

    Anyway, when they found out the bombers were white guys, I don’t remember any apologies to the Arab community.

    Anyway, I’m glad the AAJA raised the issue. You can’t be too weary of racial profiling.

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