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Is It OK to Call Suspect an "Asian Man?"

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Monday, April 16, 2007

AAJA Issues Second Advisory on Va. Tech Killings

The Asian American Journalists Association, commenting on coverage of Monday's deadly shootings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., urged the news 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."



But by Tuesday, the suspected gunman, who took his own life, was identified as Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old native of South Korea who came to the United States in the second grade, a "resident alien," and a Virginia Tech senior majoring in English.

Before his name was known, he was referred to simply as "an Asian man."

And Reuters moved a story Tuesday afternoon headlined, "Asians fear backlash after Virginia Tech shooting."

As the world knows by now, "A gunman massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech in the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history Monday, cutting down his victims in two attacks two hours apart before the university could grasp what was happening and warn students," in the words of an Associated Press report transmitted on Monday.

"The bloodbath ended with the gunman committing suicide, bringing the death toll to 33 and stamping the campus in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains with unspeakable tragedy, perhaps forever."

Late Tuesday, AAJA updated its advisory.

"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," it said.

"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."

In the 16th paragraph of one of the early stories, student Erin Sheehan is quoted as telling the Collegiate Times, the student newspaper, that the gunman "was just a normal-looking kid, Asian, but he had on a Boy Scout-type outfit. He wore a tan button-up vest, and this black vest, maybe it was for ammo or something."

Was AAJA objecting to this kind of reference?

"I think it's very different from a reporter or anchor saying it to describe the suspected gunman (or an anchor/reporter asking/pressing an eyewitness to say if the gunman was African American, or Hispanic or Asian)," Rene M. Astudillo, AAJA's executive director, told Journal-isms on Monday. "Having said that, many newsrooms have specific policies regarding the use of race or ethnicity as a descriptor. I am told by some of our AAJA members that in their newsrooms, the policy is not to use race or ethnicity unless it is absolutely relevant to the story or unless several other descriptors are used along with the race or ethnicity of a person. As to whether a direct quote should be used or not, that is for the newsroom editor to decide."

Before long, news reports were echoing Virginia Tech President Charles Steger's description of the suspect simply as an Asian student, without the "several other descriptors" Astudillo mentioned.

"We do know that he was an Asian male — this is the second incident — an Asian man who was a resident in one of our dormitories," Steger said in an interview with CNN, according to the AP.

"Virginia Tech's president says an Asian university student killed 30 people in a campus building before turning the gun on himself," another AP report began.

On campus, Shaozhuo Cui, photo editor for the student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, "found himself staring down the barrels of two heavily armed police officers because he 'fit the profile,'" the newspaper reported on Tuesday.

"Cui was mistakenly apprehended as a suspect for the shootings yesterday but was later released," the Collegiate Times wrote.

â??'I guess I matched the profile of being Asian and wearing a black jacket, and I canâ??t blame them for being cautious,' he said."

But the description of the suspect as Asian also led his former roommates to suspect Cho, according to an interview with Gary Tuchman Tuesday night on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360°."

"Now, when you heard that there was an Asian man who was the gunman, what did you think, Andy?" Tuchman asked. The roommates' last names were not disclosed.

ANDY: "Well, I was with my roommate from last year. And we kind of maybe guessed that it was him, because it matched the description. And we were a little, I guess, fearful that it would be him, hoping it wasn't."

TUCHMAN: "Why did you think right away that it might be him? There are a lot of Asians here."

ANDY: "Well, part of the description, too, was the guy they arrested on the drill field initially looked similar to him, close- cropped hair." . . .

TUCHMAN: "John, when you heard it was an Asian man who did this, did you think it was him?

JOHN: "Yes. And I don't really know a whole lot of Asians at Tech. And that may have been the reason, too. But the only strange Asian that I would known would have been Seung. And everybody that I knew that I have told stories about, about Seung, they all called me and said, 'do you think that was Seung?' when they found out it was an Asian."

Outside the United States, the shooter's nationality — if not race— was important.

"'Gunman at Virginia Tech identified as ethnic Korean,' read the headline on the English-language online edition of the Seoul-based Yon Hap News Agency, which covers events throughout Asia," William Macklin reported for the All Headline News Web site. "The Korean Herald posted condolences from South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, quoting the head of state calling the attacks 'unbelievable.'"

"The shooting drew intense coverage in China, in part because the school has a substantial Chinese student body and because reports identified the gunman as Asian," Britain's Sun newspaper reported.

Michael Binyon, editorial writer and foreign affairs specialist for the London Times, said on the "Kojo Nnamdi Show" on Washington's WAMU-FM that the initial references to "an Asian man" was misinterpreted in England, where "Asian" means someone from the Indian subcontinent, not the Far East.

In the Reuters story, Andrea Hopkins quoted Virginia Tech student Jiyoun Yoo as saying, "I'm from South Korea, so I am a little bit scared." Only one person was responsible for the massacre, she said, "but maybe it will affect all South Korean students."

"In Seoul, the South Korean government also expressed fears of a backlash," Hopkins continued. But she added, "White students on campus dismissed suggestions there might be a backlash against foreigners at the university."

Astudillo told Journal-isms that AAJA's advisory had some effect, with some journalists deciding to move down mention of the shooter's ethnicity in their stories from the first to perhaps the third paragraph.

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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