Shortly after yesterday’s tragedy made its way into the U.S. media, reports that the shooter appeared to be Asian appeared on television and online. Before authorities identified the man as 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui, a South Korean national and English major at Virginia Tech, several news outlets including the Chicago Sun-Times (with a link from Drudge) and The Times of London reported that a suspect was Chinese.
Readers will note that both of the articles linked above now reflect the correct shooter. The papers apparently have used the same URL for their online story on the shooting, continually editing it. In this case, the Times has removed any mention of its previous statement regarding a Chinese suspect. (I’m trusting Josie Liu that the page did reflect this mistaken information before.) On the other hand, the Sun-Times includes the following statement in it’s current story:
The initial investigation had led law enforcement authorities to a preliminary suspect who was a Chinese national, accompanied by details and a description. The man was placed on the suspect list before fingerprints could be verified. The list in turn was distributed to law enforcement officials via a national network in place to check on possible terrorism in the United States.
Cho was identified following an analysis of fingerprints and ballistics.
Journalistically, it is clear to me that the Chicago paper has the right idea. If you’re going to make a mistake and then delete it, you ought to mention that you had made the mistake in order to inform readers who got false impressions from you before. While the mistaken speculation was out there, a strong reaction was erupting among Chinese on the internet, according to Josie Liu:
[A] huge sensation rose among Chinese media and the public regarding a false speculation that the shooter was a Chinese student.
The gossip started with an article written by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed, who wrote that a 25-year-old “Chinese national who arrived in the United States last year on a student visa” was being investigated for the shooting.
Before long, some Chinese newspapers in the United States and state-run China News Services picked up the story. Soon after, China’s major news websites such as sina.com and sohu.com also posted the story that a Chinese student was regarded as the suspect.
Information online even provided two specific names of the alleged killer, one with the surname Jiang, from Shanghai, and the other with the surname Guo, from Liaoning. Apparently the news, especially those in Chinese, had made it seem real that the shooter was from China.
Upon receiving such information, people in China started to post comments expressing feelings like “very sad” and “ashamed.” Some even tried to assess the reasons for such “extreme behaviors” of Chinese students in the US, such as pressure to excel and the disparity between their high self-esteem and humble reality.
Liu also has a bunch of links to forum comments on the topic, for those interested. But one other interesting element concerning the journalistic element emerges in her post: Chinese media removed some comments that referred to the mistaken information when they changed the story to remove the Chinese suspect. I would appeal to my above principle on this: to avoid confusion, the comments should stand, and a note explaining the former mistake should accompany the correct information. Not that anyone cares about my advice on this, but I think it’s interesting.
- Meanwhile, in an article headlined “It’s like when 9/11 happened,” Salon reports that some South Korean students are afraid to stay on campus. I truly hope it’s nowhere near as bad.
- The Asian American Journalists Association issued an advisory admonishing reporters not to mention racial identifiers unless it’s key to the story. A former AAJA member writes to media blogger Jim Romenesko in disagreement. I’m staying out of this one.
- And a last point: In the United States, most gun control advocates who might usually try to make a political point surrounding a gun killing kept quiet out of respect. Well, Liu’s entry goes there, running under the title “Virginia Tech Massacre Let Chinese Public Appreciate China’s Gun Ban.” I can’t put my finger on why, but this framing of the issue bothers me less than U.S. commentators calling for gun control for the occasion. Perhaps people outside the United States have less of an obligation to set politics aside in times of national crisis. Liu is a graduate of the University of Missouri journalism school, so maybe I should be harder on her. Then again, I’m discussing somewhat less divisive politics on the blog right now. So in sum, I’m sorry if I’ve offended anyone with this discussion.
Cross-posted at my work blog
UPDATE: James Fallows writes on the same issue, with examples of reports quoting the Sun-Times columnist who apparently triggered many stories about the Chinese suspect. So does China Newspeak.
Leave a Reply