Media coverage of the Atlanta shooting flouted best practices on race, motive

After the shooting, some outlets immediately parroted police talking points without context or critique, extensively profiled the alleged shooter, and pushed negative tropes about sex workers

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

In the aftermath of the string of deadly shootings last week in Georgia, some news outlets put out irresponsible, stigmatizing, and possibly misleading coverage of the attacks on several Asian spas -- despite years of reporting and widely accessible guidelines about race, gender, sex work, and mass shootings. 

Research from Arizona State University and Northeastern Illinois University has confirmed that mass shootings can act like a contagion, and standards from journalistic nonprofits the Poynter Institute and No Notoriety encourage the media to limit publicizing personal information and images of alleged shooters. Poynter also notes that journalists should avoid speculating about a shooter’s motive with police and people who may have known them.

The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) also released guidance on March 17 for reporting on the spa shootings, cautioning outlets to avoid language that could fuel the hypersexualization of Asian women, which has been linked to further violence. The group also asked reporters to provide context about how this shooting fits into the rise in attacks against Asian Americans in the United States.

Despite these reporting standards, some outlets still centered the suspect in early coverage and uncritically repeated dubious police narratives regarding the alleged shooter’s motives, which effectively downplayed the role of anti-Asian racism in the shooting and boosted the suspect’s unreliable assertion that sexism was the sole motivating factor. Additionally, some outlets failed to adequately articulate the intersection between racism, misogyny, and sex work; some reporting also invoked stigmatizing and harmful narratives about sex workers. 

Echoing police narratives and downplaying the anti-Asian racism

Much of the early media coverage of the shootings directly echoed the police on the suspected shooter’s claim that his actions were not “racially motivated,” but the result of a “sex addiction” instead. Many outlets swiftly quoted law enforcement in reporting on the suspect’s motive, continuing a long-standing media habit of quoting police sources uncritically even though they can be unreliable. In the case of the Atlanta shooting, the decision to boost the alleged gunman's depiction of events as stated by law enforcement served to erase the anti-Asian racism at the core of the story.

CNN anchor Jim Sciutto tweeted:

Forbes published an article boosting the suspect’s stated motivations:

Forbes headline on Atlanta shooting

CBS published an article directly echoing law enforcement’s statements:

CBS headline on Atlanta shooting

Voice of America News published an article under the headline:

VOA News headline on Atlanta shooting

Stigmatizing reporting about sex work

Some media outlets also invoked negative, stigmatizing tropes about sex workers in their reporting on the possibility that the spas were targeted for sex work and the intersection between anti-sex work ideology and anti-Asian racism. Since the shooting, sex worker advocates have spoken out about the deadly intersection of racism and misogyny likely involved in the violent attack. Yves Nguyen, an organizer for Red Canary Song, a group that supports Asian sex workers and allies, recently told NPR:

“If these women weren't sex workers, the person who killed them certainly thought that they were," Nguyen said in an interview.

“There's a hatred for both sex workers and immigrants and being Asian and being women, and they all intersect. It would be irresponsible to not talk about all of those parts."

The International Journalists’ Network’s tips for reporting about sex workers caution media against reporting “sensationalistic or judgemental narratives, which can cause harm and endanger people working in the industry.” The network recommends that media feature sex workers’ voices and prioritize the safety of interviewees. The network also cautions against using the stigmatizing term “prostitution” or portraying sex workers as victims, and advises that outlets avoid contributing to the myth that all sex workers need to be rescued. Still, some outlets resorted to these regressive reporting patterns.

The New York Times reported on sex work’s role in the killings under a headline linking the industry to sex trafficking with little evidence showing trafficking was occurring at these locations:

NYT headline on Atlanta shootings

In a tweet promoting the article, the Times described sex work as an “industry that has drawn scrutiny because some spas have been used as fronts for prostitution, where women may be exploited and subjected to violence.”

The Times’ story included an “anti-trafficking” organization that set up cameras to secretly spy on sex workers and their clients, engaging in practices that could be dangerous toward sex workers.

The Washington Post similarly linked the sex worker industry to exploitation, in an article titled:

Wash. Post headline on Atlanta shootings

A USA Today story included quotes that stigmatize the sex work industry in reporting on the victims of the shooting, including noting that family and friends of the victims were “outraged” to hear speculation that the spas provided sex services.

Unnecessarily humanizing or profiling the alleged shooter

Writing seemingly sympathetic profiles or describing shooters as “tortured” can encourage the contagion effect of mass shootings. According to the research from the University of Alabama, when media offer shooters fame, it encourages copycats to seek the same attention. Yet journalists still published probing profiles and sympathetic headlines.

The Washington Post published a lengthy profile of the alleged shooter’s life, writing that there was a “war” within him. The article emphasizes his faith and includes a quote from a neighbor saying that the shooter and his family “come across as a good Christian family.”

"The Atlanta spa shooting suspect's life before the attacks"

A CNN article on the suspected shooter included multiple quotes from his former roommates from a rehab facility. One even said he was “shocked that his former roommate would do such a thing.”

"What we know about Robert Aaron Long, the suspect in Atlanta spa shootings"

The Daily Beast published a profile of the suspected shooter the day  he was arrested with the headline “Massage Parlor Massacres Suspect Said He Loved Guns & God.” The article quotes the shooter extensively from a 2018 video on his church’s Facebook page.

"Massage Parlor Massacres Suspect Said He Loved Guns & God"

Columbus, Georgia, TV station WTVM cited the suspect's former roommate to characterize the alleged shooter as “tortured” by his alleged sex addiction.

"Spa killing spree suspect 'tortured' by sex addiction"

A USA Today profile also extensively quoted the suspected shooter’s roommates from rehab, including paraphrasing one roomate as saying he “could not control his desire to visit massage parlors and engage in sexual acts, something that sent him into deep bouts of depression.” The article also included a quote from a former classmate who called the alleged shooter “normal.”

"Georgia spa shooting suspect, charged with 8 counts of murder, attended rehab for sex addiction"