Asian Journalists Debate: How Should We Cover VA Tech Shooter’s Race?

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The e-mails began early Monday, as news of the shootings at Virginia Tech was breaking. “Mention of race?” read the subject line of an e-mail from Sree Sreenivasan, dean of students at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The note went out to a listserv I get for Asian journalists in the New York area. Sree quoted Matt Drudge, who was quoting Sky News:

SKY NEWS: Witnesses said he was heavily armed and entered the college
looking for his girlfriend… He reportedly lined up students and opened
fire at them. He was said to be a young Asian…

There followed a barrage of e-mails from my fellow journalists. The initial ones attempted to corroborate this news; it was, after all, before any such police pronouncements. Later, after his race was confirmed, passionate discussion ensued about how and if the media ought to cover his ethnic background.

Some of the debate was spurred on by the Asian American Journalists Association, which issued this statement dated April 17:

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.

The media’s coverage of Cho Seung-Hui’s race–and of the subsequent reaction of other Asians–is indeed fodder for debate. Some of my Asian journalist colleagues argued that, whatever his color, the guy was simply a nut. Yet a CNN report titled “South Korea’s Shame” described a “collective guilt” felt in his birth country.

CNN was hardly the only media outlet to focus on Asians’ reaction to Cho’s race; an article by Connie K. Kang for the Los Angeles Times is titled “Korean community in L.A. reacts to Va. Tech shooting,” and begins,

The disclosure today that the gunman suspected of carrying out the Virginia Tech massacre was a South Korean national made the killings all the more shocking and painful for Los Angeles’ huge Korean American community.

“My heart sank when I heard the news,” the Rev. John J. Park, president of the Council of Korean Churches in Southern California, said at a hurriedly called meeting of community leaders in Koreatown.

The Reverend’s quote reveals a deep anxiety among us Asians–not just journalists of Asian descent–about the killer’s identity. As Andrew Lam of New America Media writes in a piece titled, “Let It Be Some Other ‘Asian’”:

All across America, no doubt, non-Korean Asian-Americans are now heaving a sigh of relief. “Asian,” after all, was the four-alarm-fire word we saw throughout the day after the shootings that took the lives of 33 people at Virginia Tech. The shooter was “Asian,” the news reports said. But who was this “Asian” exactly?

Before the news identified the killer as Cho Seung-hui, a 23-year-old English major from South Korea, all ethnic backgrounds were up for grabs. A friend from a small college town on the East Coast, who is Chinese, called to say: “Please, please let it be some other Asian. We’ll be in deep if it’s Chinese.”

As a person of Japanese ethnicity, I didn’t feel relieved when I learned of Cho’s nationality; I felt terrible and sad. As a journalist of Asian descent, I think everything about the shooter’s background including his race is germane when parsing his mental state. The Columbine shooters’ social status played into their deadly act. Did Cho’s immigrant status lead to his social isolation? Did he feel persecuted or marginalized because of his race?

We don’t know yet, and we may never know. But it’s deeply important to consider these possibilities in trying to understand. And it’s our job as journalists to report everything we know so that others might try to understand.