A year ago today, a gunman opened fire at three metro Atlanta spas, killing eight people, six of whom were Asian women. The horrific events — which took place amidst an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in the country as COVID-19 began to spread — rocked the city and reverberated across the United States.
As national media began their parachute into Atlanta, local reporters were on the scene. Among those covering the news when it first broke was Janice Yu, a reporter/anchor for FOX 5 Atlanta. Yu, who was born in South Korea and raised in Arizona, found herself at what she described as a weird intersection.
“My identities as a Korean American and a journalist really hadn’t crossed up until that point. That was a real moment for me, where it was just a realization that this happened and it impacts all of us in the Asian American community, not to mention just the community as a whole,” she said. “That was probably the most profound moment for me in all of it.”
We spoke with Yu about reporting on the shootings, her career and whether she has noticed changes in how the Asian and Asian American communities are covered.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you first become interested in journalism?
I actually knew I wanted to do journalism back in high school. In my freshman or sophomore year, I signed up for the newspaper. Back then, it was still a printed newspaper. I think a lot of high schools now do online editions, but this was like an actual printed paper. It was just so exciting, and it allowed me to ask questions and meet different types of people. I thought I would go into print, until college. I went to the University of Arizona and you had to decide: “Are you going into print? Are you going into broadcast?” I ended up choosing broadcast, and the rest is history.
I followed the typical path of a TV journalist, which is starting in mostly smaller cities, and then moving up. So I was in Amarillo, Texas, then I went to El Paso. Then I was in Tucson, Arizona, which was my last stop, and that’s actually home for me. Then I left there and came to Atlanta.
Why did you choose broadcast out of the other mediums?
It’s not just your writing — it’s also your storytelling from a visual standpoint. I loved photography. I have an uncle who is a photographer, too, so I just felt like it was an interesting way to approach storytelling more than just strictly writing. That was my draw initially. That’s still probably the most exciting part of it to this day, is just being able to tell a story not just with your words, but your images, too.
As you mentioned, prior to coming to Georgia, you worked in Arizona and Texas. What differences have you found between these states in your reporting?
Amarillo was very different. It’s Texas and it’s very flat. There’s a lot of agriculture, so news there is completely different than what I was used to. When I moved to El Paso, that was a little more of what I was used to growing up in Tucson — obviously very heavy with immigration. Those were big stories, and then you have your usual (stories about) crime, city council, things like that. When I went to Tucson, it was much of the same thing, though El Paso is much more of a border community. Our station was within walking distance of the pedestrian bridge into Juarez.
For me, that was such an impactful time in my career because you were able to see immigration firsthand. I know we throw around “immigration” in these big-picture ideas, and politicians talk about it. But until you’re there and you see that it’s a day-to-day thing for people, I feel like people just don’t grasp it. Tucson felt different because it’s home, I had lived in this community since the start of sixth grade, but it was just powerful getting to know the city in a different way.
When I grew up, I thought I knew Tucson, but once you work there, you see the ins and outs of it. You see different parts of the city that maybe you didn’t go to.
I can only imagine going back to where I came of age and then having to put on the reporter’s cap. That must have been really interesting.
Yea. It’s like a different lens, and you’re also grown up, too. After you’ve lived a life and lived professionally, you see it through a different lens. That was a very unique experience.
What kinds of stories do you like to cover the most?
Being general assignment, I’m lucky enough to cover anything and everything that happens to be going on, or falls in my lap. For me, the most powerful — and this is coming as a local journalist — are stories that are storytelling opportunities. We live in a world full of stories and characters; it’s being able to find those unique stories that are so local to our communities, but then being able to expand them out a little more so that it captures the wider audience. It can be about something that city council is passing that seems very dry, but when you find a person that it impacts and you build a story around them, it makes for a much more powerful piece. I think people tend to pay attention more when it’s a story about a person in their community and not just me, as a journalist, rattling off facts and numbers on television.
Those are among my favorite stories, as well. You’re putting a face to an issue. You’re humanizing what can sometimes be very complex problems.
I think that’s our job as journalists. A part of it is to break down these complicated things and help people realize, “Hey, I know this may sound confusing and maybe it doesn’t impact you, but here’s a breakdown of it. Here’s how it impacts an actual human in our community.” Hopefully that opens people’s eyes to different things happening around them.
This week marks a year since an unprovoked man killed eight people, the majority of whom were Asian women. How do you reflect on that day?
It was a really unique experience, both professionally and personally. It was like this weird intersection and cross section of all of my identities — as a Korean American, as an immigrant, as a journalist living in the community where this mass shooting happened.
It’s hard to describe sometimes the emotions that came with it, but the night that it happened, I went there as breaking news (reporter). I often tell people that I still play that moment back in my mind. I remember it so vividly. It was just me getting out of the car. It was wet and cold. The sun was about to go down. I remember getting out of my work car and walking up to the crime tape and having this feeling of, “This is something big. Something is very, very wrong here.” And then the night progressed.
During a news conference, I asked the Atlanta police chief, “Were the victims Asian?” That’s when he confirmed it. And I just felt this feeling in my stomach. We had heard off the record at that point, but it hadn’t been confirmed. Part of me was like, “Well, maybe that’s not correct.” But it was. Because I’m there as a reporter, you become very good at switching that off and doing your job and doing live shots and gathering facts. Very much from then on, it was routine just for me to do my live shots, do my work, and then drive home.
Where it happened was maybe just 10 minutes from my place. I’ve passed by it plenty of times. I continue to pass by it to this day. It was only the day after it happened that I really had a chance to process. I took some flowers before my shift and went to this makeshift memorial and read some of the signs. This is my ninth year as a reporter, and I’ve never come across a situation where I’m at a vigil or a memorial, and I see things in Korean. I am fluent in Korean, so it was very strange for me to be there, knowing what happened and seeing the women’s names written in Korean. Which sounds so simple, right? But it was on posters and cards that people left, and there were Bible verses written in Korean.
There was something about that that just really hit me emotionally. My identities as a Korean American and a journalist really hadn’t crossed up until that point. That was a real moment for me, where it was just a realization that this happened and it impacts all of us in the Asian American community, not to mention just the community as a whole. That was probably the most profound moment for me in all of it.
I can’t imagine what that was like for you. You’re a reporter/anchor for your station and you’re Korean American. It feels like you couldn’t get closer to the story.
At what point do you draw the line? I don’t want to come off as this biased journalist, right? But upon talking to my fellow AAPI journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, we were firm in the fact that it’s not that we can’t tell these stories because we’re Korean American. No, we can tell them better because there are just some cultural nuances, these subtle things that you won’t necessarily pick up or know unless you are familiar with the culture.
I think a lot of the messaging that AAJA had right after the shooting was: “We need to utilize the resources we have in our community, in our newsrooms, which are Asian American journalists. Who better to tell the story than someone who is familiar with the culture?” I applaud AAJA for speaking out and the leaders of the organization for providing all of this guidance on how to best handle the coverage accurately, of course, but also to be culturally sensitive.
After the shootings, AAJA expanded its guidance on coverage of anti-AAPI violence. You were one of two reporters featured in a pronunciation guide video in which you said the names of some of the victims with the correct pronunciation. How did you get involved in that?
It’s kind of a blur, but it was the few days immediately following it. AAJA members hopped on a Zoom call and were brainstorming ideas and we were discussing, “Hey, what are you guys seeing in your newsrooms? What do you think our colleagues could benefit from?” That’s how the idea of the video was born. Frances Wang, who did the other part of the video, had recorded hers first and said, “Hey, we should mush the two together and just make one video on how to pronounce the name.”
Oddly enough, I was off work that day. I had a pre-planned trip to Florida. That video was shot as soon as I arrived. I had been working the entire drive, doing everything I could in any way I can help. So I recorded that video and it sounds very simple, right? It’s just a video of us pronouncing names, but when I look back on it, to me, it’s filled with so much emotion. It’s not something you can see in it, but I know Frances was feeling it. I know I was feeling it. It’s just this heaviness, that we have to do this.
What drove you to want to do that?
It goes back to my personal life. Me being Korean American, my legal name isn’t Janice. I was born in Seoul, so I have a Korean name that’s legally my name. But Janice is what I have always gone by. That’s just the name that I’ve decided is easier for people to pronounce. The first part of a Korean name is often two parts, and then you have your last name. Sometimes the second part of my first name would get mistaken for my middle name, and so they would only say half my name, and people just didn’t know how to pronounce it. That was a big part of my life growing up.
The medical examiner’s office locally here released the names of the four women killed in Atlanta and they sent out the news release. There was a very familiar mistake, unintentional of course — but the second part of their first names were left off, probably because they thought it was a middle name. I had to call and I said, “Hey, technically this is inaccurate. Can you guys please include the second part of it?” It was an honest mistake. I don’t blame them for that. And the correct names ended up coming out. It was little things like that where I knew it was going to be difficult for my colleagues not because they want to make errors, but just because they don’t know. And that’s the function of AAJA — to help with guidance and things like that.
We as journalists spend so much time making sure we get people’s names and how to pronounce their names right. If it’s a name that I think is hard to pronounce, I will repeat it over and over and over again before I have to say it in a voiceover just because I want to make sure I get that right. And so I wanted other people to have a resource so that they could do the same thing for these four women.
Is the mispronunciation of Asian names something that you see often in the media?
Yea. It’s hard because Korean doesn’t always phonetically translate well to English. There are certain sounds that maybe don’t exist in English, or an English speaker would interpret these groups of letters to be pronounced this way but in Korean it’s a little different. So it’s only understandable that that happens. And a lot of times, there are no resources. If there is an AAPI member in the newsroom, maybe colleagues can lean on them and say, “Hey, do you happen to know how to correctly pronounce this name?” But without that diversity in the newsroom, there’s no one to help with that. And again, that’s not anyone’s fault, necessarily. We need to look as an industry and really figure out why we don’t have diversity, why we don’t have those resources in the newsroom.
How would you describe the environment among local reporters that day, as more details trickled in once news broke?
I can’t speak for the rest of my colleagues in Atlanta whether it’s our station or others, but I think there was a tremendous effort to make sure we got things right and make sure we were drawing on the correct local resources to be able to correctly tell the stories — and frame it in an appropriate and culturally sensitive context.
My big push was to help people realize that this is not just a mass shooting that happened to involve Asian American women. It is a mass shooting where Asian Americans were killed during a time when we’re seeing a rise in attacks against Asian Americans. Context is so incredibly important. For me, conveying that was maybe the hardest part but also the most important part. I don’t want to hear that, “Oh well, they just happen to be Asian.” I mean, yes, they are Asian women. There’s no denying that fact. But helping people realize why this impacts the Asian American community the way it does is critical.
As the story surrounding this shooting began to develop more, what are some things you noticed about the way it was being covered by national media?
Some of the most disappointing coverage, I think, was being quick to judge people based on where they were working. It’s a very sensitive topic. I understand that this happened at spas, but focusing your story around who they are because they worked at these places — for me, that wasn’t a part of the story. Yes, that’s a fact. Yes, these shootings happened in the spas. And you can state that fact. But I didn’t think it was the time to draw out, “Well, what does this mean for them as individuals?” As individuals, they have their own stories: They’re immigrants, they’re mothers, they’re grandmothers, they’re friends. That’s the story; not, “This happened because of where they worked.”
Another big thing, too, was, the suspect had come out and said this wasn’t motivated by race and that it was a sexual addiction that drove it. As an industry, we’re so quick to jump on that and say, “OK, well he’s saying it’s not so it must not be.” We can state what he said, of course. That’s definitely a thing we, as journalists, have to include. But we’re also doing Asian Americans a huge disservice when we don’t talk about why they feel the way they do and why timing of this was such a big deal. We saw this as like this climax in a year where we were hearing and seeing these awful things happening to Asian Americans, who are just going about their days.
In the year since this tragedy, have you noticed any changes in how the Asian or Asian American communities are covered?
Unfortunately, it’s been a year and we still hear about these awful, terrible things happening to Asian Americans across the country. It’s disheartening in that sense. But what I am seeing more of, in a lot of the things I’m reading and seeing, is that context. That this wasn’t just a crime that happened to happen to an Asian person … this only amplifies the issue of the rise and attacks we’ve seen over the last two years.
I applaud the industry for definitely putting more context into the stories, but I think changes aren’t going to happen overnight — like the issue of diversity in the industry. Making sure we have more resources is still a work in progress. I would like to think that leaders of the industry are realizing the importance of different voices and having them in newsrooms. I’m hopeful that we see those changes five years from now.
I remember seeing some tweets in journalism circles about the victims not being covered as deeply as they should have been. Do you agree with that?
Yeah, I do. We as an industry were focusing on other things. It’s also a cultural thing. Sometimes Asians aren’t as outspoken. You don’t talk about bad things that happen. It’s like a family matter. Sometimes they’re not very familiar with the idea of sharing their stories on the local news. It’s a public thing. Also, they just weren’t comfortable sometimes talking to English-speaking reporters for American TV stations. Sometimes the Korean outlets were the first to get the scoop and get the story and the sitdown with the victims’ families.
A lot of it is cultural, a lot of it is maybe local journalists not having these strong connections to the community. And we should have. Many different factors played into it. But yes, I would have liked to have seen much more reporting on who these people were as individuals.
How could outlets have improved their stories about the victims?
In the moment, I’m not sure what people could have done for any given newsroom. I think it just goes back to — and I’m at fault, too — not having those connections set up earlier. Our viewing area in Atlanta is huge. We have many different counties, with many different demographics. As reporters in newsrooms, we cover stories of the day.
During my time in Atlanta, I realized I spent very little time trying to connect with the Asian American community in a professional manner because those just weren’t the stories you were covering. … I look back and I was neglecting my own community just because that wasn’t what drove daily coverage. So again, that’s not an in-the-moment thing that we can fix right away, but I think our coverage could have been better had we already had those connections established.
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