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Reporting on the Atlanta killings

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Reporting on the Atlanta killings

By Steven A. Smith

Journalists are accustomed to making tough decisions.

But some decisions are tougher than others, and those often occur in the context of difficult, if not impossible ethical dilemmas.

Last week’s shooting rampage in Atlanta is a model of such ethical complexity.

The story: A 21-year-old white man shot and killed eight people in attacks on three Asian massage spas. Six of the victims were Asian women, including the woman who owned one of the targeted businesses. The shooter, Robert Aaron Long, was arrested as he was traveling to Florida to continue his rampage, police said.

For a variety of reasons, the story presented journalists with several ethical issues involving racial stereotyping and the qualities of complete, accurate reporting.

In this case, context matters.

There has been a substantial increase in violence targeting Asians in this country since the start of the pandemic. Former President Trump helped fuel that violence by labeling COVID-19 the “kung flu” and, if not affirmatively at least by his silence, suggesting its spread was deliberate. QAnon supporters continue to market the outrageous falsehood that COVID came from a Chinese military laboratory.

It will be some time before complete statistics are available. But anecdotally and as verified by organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, and even the U.S. Justice Department, hate crimes targeting Asians have skyrocketed in the last year.

Particularly at risk are Asian women, in part because our culture has accepted a hypersexualized stereotype that dates to the great Chinese migrations of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

At times it seems as if the notoriously short American attention span can encompass only one racial discrimination dynamic at any given time. While we were justifiably focused on Black Lives Matter for much of 2020, the increase in crimes against Asians went largely unnoticed by the general population. (And crimes against Native Americans, particularly the murderous disappearances of Native women, were almost entirely ignored.)

The Atlanta-area murders served to refocus attention on anti-Asian racism, at least for the moment.

A woman examines a display at a Stop Asian Hate rally in Spokane/Gen Heywood-SpokaneFāVS

But how could the story be reported without advancing damaging stereotypes?

There are two fundamental values that are at the heart of American journalism. First, journalists are to tell the public what they know when they know it, thoroughly and accurately. Second, journalists are to minimize the harm that can often result from thorough reporting.

The potential conflict between those two values has rarely been as evident as it was last week.

The murders took place at three Atlanta businesses variously described as “massage parlors” or “massage spas.” Which term best describes the businesses? Journalists struggled to decide.

The term “massage parlor” has generally become synonymous with businesses that offer sexual services. Use of that term suggests, before much more is known, that some of the victims were likely sex workers, possibly even victims of sex trafficking.

But the term “massage spa” is imprecise, even confusing. The term “spa” generally describes a place where beauty services are offered, including massage, nails, facial treatments, and so on.

Calling the businesses massage parlors in early reporting could further harm the victims and their families, reinforcing those old stereotypes of Asian women as hypersexualized, suggesting they somehow made themselves vulnerable, less sympathetic. That would be classic victim blaming.

But a journalist could also make the case that the facts support the use of massage parlor rather than spa. Within 24 hours, journalists reported that all three business had been the target of repeated police investigations, stings, and employee arrests on prostitution charges. All three are listed on a national web site that tracks and rates Asian massage parlors.

The shooter reportedly told police he attacked the businesses because he wanted to eliminate sources of sexual temptation. Reporting the shooter’s reported assertion without fully reporting the nature of the targeted businesses compromises the complete and accurate reporting standard.

This is that fundamental values conflict – complete and accurate reporting versus minimization of harm.

When I taught mass media ethics, I told my students that ethical decision-making is all about shades of gray. Presented with precisely the same set of facts, two journalists might make entirely opposite decisions, and both could be considered ethical.

I was struck by the decision of several national news organizations to use euphemisms in describing the targeted businesses and to avoid reporting the record of police stings and arrests. Those organizations chose to value minimization of harm over complete reporting and focused more on the notion the killings were a hate crime.

Then there were a few organizations that never moved much past the sex-business angle in attempting to explain the shooter’s motivation.

By and large, journalists seemed to find a middle ground, although sometimes haltingly.

The Washington Post, not surprisingly, produced a terrific report at week’s end. The Post detailed the seedier aspects of all three businesses but provided essential details that avoided re-victimizing the dead and placed the killings in the context of anti-Asian hate crimes. Nothing in the report could be construed as victim blaming.

(There was one significant flaw in the report. Reporters noted the existence of the sex-services tracking and rating website. Fair enough. But it was not necessary, and potentially quite harmful, to provide the name of the site that provides names and addresses for hundreds of such businesses all over the country. Those seeking to do harm to Asian women could probably find the site. But making it easy was not necessary.)

There was a time in my journalism career where my default value would be complete and accurate reporting. The consequences, even harmful consequences, were not my concern. I later referred to this mindset as “fortress newsroom” – we report, then barricade the fortress against those we have offended or hurt.

I am far less sanguine now. Especially in matters of race and racial stereotyping, the decisions we make can have devastating consequences that simply cannot be dismissed.

Not all the reporting surrounding the Atlanta-area murders took those potential consequences into account, but a great deal of it did. Journalists did not avoid the tough questions and uncomfortable facts. But they worked hard to find a middle ground between two conflicting values that are at the heart of the craft and that seemed to be in a nearly impossible conflict.

About Steven A Smith

Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020.

Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms with a staff ranging from more than 140 in 2002 to 104 at the time of his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at The Statesman Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette, a Freedom Communications newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an MA in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a BS in journalism from the University of Oregon.

Smith serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board.

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