March 19, 2021

The headlines started coming in late Tuesday. “7 Killed in 2 Separate Shootings At Metro Atlanta Spas.” “7 dead in shootings at 3 massage parlors across metro Atlanta.”

Before I opened the links, I already had an inkling that the story would involve an element of Asians working at or operating the businesses. And that inkling is from years of being a news consumer, seeing that “massage parlor” in particular has become coded language for a site that employs sex workers.

On Wednesday, the death toll had increased to eight, and a white man had been arrested in connection with the killings.

News organizations struggled with how to present still-developing news. Many organizations referred to the victims as women of “Asian descent.” This phrase wasn’t attributed to police, but it isn’t precise. It also led to the activist group Stop AAPI Hate issuing a statement calling the crimes “an unspeakable tragedy — for the families of the victims first and foremost, but also for the” Asian American Pacific Islander community.

The Asian American Journalists Association just released guidance on how to report on the case. The top recommendation is to avoid “language in coverage that could fuel hypersexualization of Asian women.” (In case you’re having trouble accessing AAJA’s website, here’s a document with the guidance and a Twitter thread.)

Not nearly as many news organizations mentioned the suspect’s race. Some coverage did include his booking photo, but if it’s relevant to include the race of the victims, it’s equally relevant to include the race of the suspect.

Some news organizations also amplified comments from the suspect. Multiple newsrooms pushed out an alert saying the suspect did not indicate that the shootings were racially motivated. For people who might not follow this case closely, that might lead them to take the suspect at his word. Saying that this is what he told police doesn’t provide much further context.

I’ve worked in breaking-news situations for many years. I know the intense pressures that reporters, editors and engagement teams are under to keep the audience informed and also to drive traffic to your content. I have been the person who wrote the news alert, then pushed the button that sent breaking news to millions of devices.

But we have to do better.

Journalists need to stop and ask ourselves:

  • Are we parroting other news organizations because we think that gives us cover?
  • Are we quoting the police because we think that protects us?
  • Are we getting as many sides of the story as we can even as the story evolves?

The tragedy in metro Atlanta is made worse by the rush to be first without consideration of the biases we might amplify. Journalists have the power to shape public perception, so it’s our job to dig deeper into the suspect’s motives, to let our audience know more about the victims and their lives, to talk to other people who were affected — including witnesses and victims’ families. It’s also important to think about the negative connotation of “massage parlors” when the Atlanta mayor has said they were “legally operating businesses.”

We’ll learn a lot more in coming days, but we can start improving our coverage of this story immediately.

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As director of training and diversity at Poynter, Doris Truong is responsible for overseeing in-person training — at the institute and in newsrooms — as…
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