KTVU, Racist Reporting, and Responsibility

In July, I watched a plane crash unfold in real time on Twitter. The first updates flowed in within seconds as people at San Francisco International Airport posted images of what appeared to be a plane on fire on the runway after a bad landing, and rumours spread like wildfire. The mass media struggled to keep up with the speed of social media; it was a cargo plane, it was a passenger plane, it was on fire, it wasn’t, it had flipped on its roof, it was on its belly, it had snapped in two, only the tail section had snapped up.

Reporters fumbled for the latest information, used on-the-ground interviews, and updated as soon as they thought they had verified information on what eventually turned out to be Asiana 214. That information was often wrong, a common issue with rapid news reporting: even when you’re looking right at an event, there’s still a lot going on that is hard to understand and track. And when you have multiple agencies involved including the FAA and SF Fire, it gets hard to track down statements and collect information for eager viewers who want to know why social media is moving so much faster.

KTVU, a news station in the Bay Area, tried to keep abreast of updates and became a significant source because of its proximity to the disaster while other outlets tried to get boots on the ground. And the station made an unforgivable and horrific error in its reporting. It read aloud a series of ‘names,’ claiming they were those of the pilots involved in the crash: ‘Captain Sum Ting Wong,’ ‘Wi Tu Lo,’ ‘Ho Lee Fuk,’ and ‘Bang Ding Ow.’

Ah, ‘generic Asian names,’ the purview of racist white people everywhere. Playing upon the fact that Chinese names, which these were clearly meant to resemble (we’ll ignore the fact that Asiana is a Korean airline), ‘look funny,’ people like to come up with witty ‘jokes’ like this. When sounded out, of course, the names become ‘Something Wrong,’ ‘We Too Low[1. Ah, Engrish! Hilarious!],’ ‘Holy Fuck,’ and, well, that last one is pretty obvious.

One might reasonably ask why a television station aired these names in the first place. They’re very obviously joke/hoax names not just by appearance, but if you take two seconds to sound them out—which is something responsible journalists should be doing before they go on air anyway to make sure they have the pronunciation of a name right. Apparently no one bothered to do that in this case, and KTVU was left with egg on its face as viewers immediately reacted with rage, pointing out that, er, these ‘names’ were very clearly a racist ‘joke.’

So what happened? Where did KTVU get the names? Why didn’t they verify them? And why didn’t at least one person in the newsroom pause and ask about whether maybe it might be a good idea to doublecheck on those names before running them?

The station has come up with all sorts of reasons to explain the ‘slipup,’ for which it’s being sued by Asiana. But what these boil down to is transparent excuses that cover up the real issue here, which is, quite simply, racism. Anti-Asian racism is very much alive in the United States and the reading of the names represented a classic example of racist attitudes about Asian names, the belief in the universal interchangeability of people of different Asian ethnicity, and nasty beliefs about ‘Asians.’

This is a country where ‘Asians’ are supposedly high achievers who are good at everything, pushing ‘Americans’ out of their rightful places in school, jobs, and society. Yet, at the same time, people like to make jokes about ‘Asian drivers,’ and they find this contradiction simply hilarious. It was only a step up from Asian driver jokes to Asian pilot jokes; while piloting actually requires extensive experience and training, obviously if a pilot is Asian, he’ll fly his plane too slow, swerve into the wrong lane, or stop short of the landing, am I right? Because, you know, Asians and vehicles.

The KTVU incident sparked a lot of commentary, especially from Asian-American journalists and professional organisations as well as individual commentators, because it was a gross incidence of racism. Some people seemed intent on claiming that it was just an issue of fact checking and accuracy in media, but it was more than that, and treating it that way undermines the importance of the additional conversation we need to have about why whites think names from other cultures are so weird and hilarious. And why it is that a major and theoretically reputable news station didn’t think carefully about the potential racial implications of a major airline disaster involving a Korean carrier, and perhaps think about the fact that they might be hoaxed or their coverage might take on unexpectedly racialised elements.

Responsibility in journalism is about more than fact-checking, although that’s an important part of it too. It’s also about thinking out all the implications of a story and considering every angle in coverage. It’s about balancing the elements of a story to ensure that when social and minority issues come up, they’re treated fairly and with respect. With fast-breaking news, journalists need to be careful of hoaxes not just because they make news outlets look like they don’t know how to verify information, but because they may be designed to target a minority group.

This is something people seem to miss with corrections like these. The issue isn’t just the fact that an error was made and the wrong, uh, ‘names’ were given. The issue was that blatant racism was aired that day, and that’s something the station didn’t take on in its apologies.