Mass media can never represent the full objective truth of an event. This often results in suppression of already marginalized voices, including, in the case of the recent Atlanta shooting, those of the AAPI community.
On March 16, a gunman arrived at Young’s Asian Massage in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. He killed Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng. He drove 30 miles to Gold Massage Spa. He killed Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, and Hyun Jung Park Grant. He crossed the street to Aromatherapy spa. He killed Yong Ae Yue. Six out of eight of the victims were women of Asian descent: two were Chinese and four were Korean.
Coverage of the shooting dominated mainstream US news in the following days. But despite the attention, key perspectives remained hidden. Here, I discuss such shadowing—the failure to properly represent the shooting victims, and the failure to raise the voices and history of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in the US.
The crucial mistake was immediately focusing the reporting on the suspect. A day after the shootings, Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office publicly stated that the suspect cited “sex addiction” as his motive. The massage parlors were treated as a temptation to be eliminated, not as targets of racially motivated violence. Baker’s report was already bigoted on a surface level. His sympathy for the gunman’s apparently “bad day”, combined with his previous support of Sinophobic imagery, soon prompted backlash.
However, the greatest harm arose from reproducing the suspect’s perspective on a national scale. On the same day as Baker’s statement, mainstream news sites ran headlines on the suspect’s “sex addiction”. These news sites dug into the suspect’s perspective for insight. The New York Times interviewed his neighbors, his church, and quoted his Instagram description. CNN contact-traced the suspect’s relations and detailed his issues with religion and sex. In a Washington Post article, the suspect’s ministry reminisced on his upbringing as a “typical teenager”. These sites identified the suspect’s struggles. These sites humanized the suspect.
These news sites had not yet identified all the victims.
The context of the shooting is a complex issue. Race, gender, and sexuality intersected to create both the conditions for the existence of the massage parlors and the suspect’s dehumanization of Asian women. However, when mainstream news sites prioritized the suspect’s perspective, they replaced complexity with ambiguity. AAPI oppression was not treated as one of the root causes, but a related issue that contextualized the crime. Mainstream news sites such as TIME acknowledged a race issue but otherwise focused on highlighting the suspect’s Christian sexual repression. Other sites such as Fox News opted to push against the presence of any racial “narrative.”
Directly assuming racist motivations is poor reporting—no one has access to the gunman’s mind. But the fact that news sites skewed their reporting so heavily to the suspect’s words speaks to the narrative agency of white male perpetrators in US media. The gunman’s words— sex addiction, not racism—were in the headlines. His actions—targeting a store named Youngs Asian Massage and driving 30 miles to the next two locations to shoot Asian women—remained within the body of the article. When we allow the perpetrator’s words to lead the discussion, we hide the structural inequalities that contributed to the perpetrator’s decisions.
Orientalism and Sex Work
Moreover, the suspect’s words reflect a deep history of anti-Asian sentiment in the US. Shu-Chin Tsui, a professor of Asian Studies and Cinema Studies at Bowdoin, writes:
[The gunman’s] rhetoric has its roots in a long history of Sinophobia in America; it is a racist perspective that frames the Asian as Other, especially Asian women. The fact that the slaughter took place at massage spas, with women as the targets, indicates the racial and sexual nature of the assault, in particular the dehumanization of Asian women in the eyes of the white male perpetrator.
Tsui’s discussion of the Other strongly links to Orientalism, or the tendency in the West to view Eastern nations as a monolithic other. Orientalism maps onto Asian women’s bodies by portraying them as exotic sexual objects. This has resulted in their historical dehumanization. As Pawan Dhingra writes, the US has sexualized and exploited Asian women through immigration policy, military abuse, and popular culture. Echoing the words “sex addiction” in the context of this violent crime is dangerous.
Most Asian massage parlors do not offer sex work in the first place, and they could be viewed unfairly as a result of the suspect’s words. But propagating the term “sex addiction” also targets and blames AAPI sex workers who do work in massage parlors. Sex workers are already marginalized. As a report on illicit massage parlors finds, sex workers often have limited economic opportunities, are highly policed, and can suffer from language barriers when arrested. Advocacy groups such as Red Canary Song and The Sex Work Project are concerned that the shootings will cause more policing of sex work, which induces criminalization and hurts workers more. USA Today found that two of the attacked massage parlors were repeatedly targeted by the police for prostitution. Moreover, a son of one of the victims, Randy Park, noted that his mother hid the nature of her profession to avoid stigma.
The AAPI Community
The most revealing perspectives never come from the mainstream English-speaking news sites, but instead from the impacted communities themselves. Belinda Kong, an associate professor of Asian Studies and English at Bowdoin, remarks on the shooting’s early reporting:
The English media has been [portraying] the onlookers as these helpless bystanders who are passively traumatized, whereas in fact that portrait is actually hiding, making invisible, the kind of network agencies that are on the ground from some of these Asian American communities already that are taking place in Korean.
Kyubin Kim is a Korean-American student at Bowdoin. Frustrated at the mainstream media’s failure to address racism and misogyny, Kim pivoted to using Twitter to look for updates and information from people on the ground. She writes:
One of the first Korean news media that I found through Asian American Twitter retweets was the Chosun Ilbo. The translated headline? “Atlanta shooter tells me ‘I’m going to kill all Asians’.” The local Atlanta-based Korean paper features an eyewitness account from a survivor at the Gold Spa, who said that the gunman shouted “I’m going to kill all the Asians” during his rampage…This schism between American journalism and local Korean reportage only grew when I was able to find the names and victims of six out of the eight victims before the police publicly released them. Another Atlanta-based Korean paper I found through Twitter retweets, Joongang Ilbo Atlanta, also had much more information on the victims than what American media outlets were reporting.
Contrast this against Baker’s statements that it was not a race issue. Contrast this against the articles detailing the perpetrator’s church activities. Kim continues:
Even while the majority of victims of the murders are Asian women, they are still relegated into a marginal space. The way supposedly leftist American media reproduces the erasure of Asian women and Asian sex workers sickens me as a Korean American. Part of this may be because of the language barrier in Asian immigrant communities but at the same time, we shouldn’t have to translate our grief to mainstream America for them to understand our pain and our weariness of constantly being erased.
Weeks later, the mainstream news has details about the victim’s lives and articles about the impact on Asian American communities. But, ironically, it is the immediate reporting that lingers. It is the perpetrator’s narrative, the shock and spectacle over a shooter with a sex addiction that gains first access to the minds of the English-speaking US.
Many news sites released information on the victims as they came, but the suspect’s statement took precedence in the national psyche by appearing first. So, the perpetrator-based narrative might have been avoided by simply delaying reporting. Kong notes:
The police were eager to take the suspect’s word and then put it out in the public, and the media was then eager to forward that narrative…Some of these stereotypes then have been left to stand and play in the public imagination before some of these humanizing and evidence-based narratives go out into the mainstream. The media could actually have not done that to begin with, right? Confirm what are these parlors, who are the victims, what they were doing there before they just propagated and reiterated the suspect’s version of things.
For example, highlighting that Delauna Yaun was spending time with her husband at the spa. Or noting the entrepreneurship and community work of Xiaojie Tan. Or that many of the victims, such as Tan, Suncha Kim, and Hyun Jung Grant were providing for children. US procedures require next of kin to be notified before victim names are made public, presenting an issue to victims such as Daoyou Feng, who had no such relations. However, even identifying this issue and recognizing that many of the workers worked under pseudonyms or had no relatives would have been beneficial. Any humanization of the victims is better than only interviewing the perpetrators’ English-speaking relations.
Most major news sites are now covering the victims’ lives. The last step is to prioritize such narratives and make sure that they are not overshadowed by the perpetrator’s immediate declarations. Along with immediately covering local impacts, news sites should reach out to local AAPI reporters to distribute the burden of honoring the victims; directly consulting AAPI expertise would be far better than merely referencing hate crimes against AAPIs in passing. The Asian American Journalists Association offers appropriate guidelines for doing this work.
Equally important is recognizing that reporting is never neutral. News can be false, but also exclusionary and misinterpreted. Behind every event lies subtexts of marginalization and exclusion that must be explained. In the case of the Atlanta shooting, such explanations lie within the AAPI community.
Thanks to Kyubin Kim, Shu-Chin Tsui, and Belinda Kong for their invaluable contributions to this article.