After eight people — six Asian women, one white man and one white woman – were killed in a shooting in Atlanta last week, there’s been debate as to whether or not the media has been correct to tie the incident to anti-Asian hatred and racism.
Some have accused the media of bias in their coverage of the story, saying outlets have engaged in types of media bias such as emotionalism, spin, slant, and bias by omission in order to spin a misleading tale of the incident being an example of rising anti-Asian hate. Others say the media is correct to point out purported rises in anti-Asian hate in relation to the incident, claiming the incident either explicitly or implicitly ties to real racial issues and prejudices.
Let’s unpack the incident, reporting and media bias claims, and the beliefs on both sides of the aisle.
What Happened in Atlanta: The Facts
21-year-old Robert Aaron Long was arrested last Tuesday night after he allegedly opened fire at numerous massage parlors that day. He’s accused of killing eight people after targeting three massage parlors in the Atlanta area. Six of the victims were Asian women, and two — a man and a woman — were white. A third victim who was injured was Hispanic.
When police arrested Long on Tuesday, he was headed to Florida, where authorities said he was planning to attack “some type of porn industry.”
Long told Atlanta police he has a sexual addiction and an “issue with porn,” and that he targeted the massage parlors because he saw them as "a temptation ... that he wanted to eliminate," Cherokee County sheriff's Capt. Jay Baker said at a news conference Wednesday.
CNN (Left media bias) reported that Long had been kicked out of his parents’ house Monday morning for watching pornography for hours on end. Police noted that “indicators right now are [the shootings] may not be” racially motivated, and as of this writing, investigators have no evidence to suggest that it was.
A former roommate of Long’s told CNN anonymously that the suspect had gone to rehab twice in the last year for sexual addiction. Another former roommate, Tyler Bayless, who met Long in an Atlanta halfway house for recovering addicts, told Reuters (Center media bias) that Long went to massage parlors “for explicitly sexual activity”; Bayless said Long was “deeply religious” and became “very emotionally distraught that he frequented these places.”
Some Data Shows Rising Anti-Asian Hate Crimes
As of this writing, investigators have no evidence that the Atlanta shooting was racially motivated. Separately, some media outlets have pointed to data that suggests anti-Asian incidents were rising in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data about anti-Asian crimes was circulating in the media long before the shooting, both on the left (from AP Politics, Lean Left) and right (Washington Examiner, Lean Right). Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, two groups have tracked hate crimes and incidents of prejudice against Asians in the United States.
The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, released data this month suggesting that anti-Asian hate incidents rose in 16 of America’s largest cities by nearly 150% during the pandemic, even amid an apparent decline in overall hate crimes, with a total of 122 anti-Asian hate crimes happening across all 16 cities in 2020. Most cities had less than 10 total anti-Asian hate crimes, except for Seattle, Boston, LA, and New York City, which had between 12 and 28 crimes. The Center’s report includes FBI data and also includes preliminary data provided by policing agencies.
The Center’s report includes data from Stop AAPI Hate, which describes itself as “a national coalition aimed at addressing anti-Asian discrimination amid the pandemic.” It says it received 3,795 reports of anti-Asian American incidents between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021. About 68% were cases of verbal harassment; shunning or avoidance made up about 20%, and roughly 11% of the reported incidents involved physical assaults. These reports are based on individual testimonies that can’t be independently verified, not law enforcement data.
Advocates for Asian Americans have at times blamed former President Trump’s rhetoric on China as the source of COVID-19 for purportedly normalizing prejudice against Asian Americans, pointing to studies that suggest his rhetoric helped catalyze a spike in anti-Asian incidents (ABC News - Lean Left).
Left Media Focuses on Purported Racial Motive
Media outlets mostly on the left, such as Vox (Left bias), CNN (Left), CBS News (Lean Left), ABC News (Lean Left), the Washington Post (Lean Left) and The New York Times Editorial Board (Left), all tied the incident to anti-Asian racism, with some outlets (like ABC) noting the shooting came after “nearly a year of growing anti-Asian hate amid the pandemic”. Others (like CBS and the New York Times) focused on feelings of fear among members of Asian communities. The Washington Post ran the headline, “The long history of violence against Asian Americans that led up to Atlanta,” which goes through a history of purported anti-Asian sentiment and lawmaking, and also notes Donald Trump’s rhetoric condemning China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Others also tied it to white supremacy, such as USA Today (Center media bias), which ran an article stating the incident is an opportunity for the Asian-American community to come together and “effectively address the common enemy of white supremacy.” USA Today also said the issue renewed the debate over “white violence, privilege,” saying those who see a racial motivation believe the evidence is “in our experience. Experience reflecting centuries of white supremacy.”
Left-wing press, including ABC News, also focused on “the legacy of misogyny and racism against Asian women,” quoting “advocates who spoke with ABC News [who] say attacks against Asian Americans, in particular, Asian American women, is rooted in an ugly side of American history.”
Several politicians and federal lawmakers, such as President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and California Congresswoman Judy Chu, attributed the attacks to racism. Chu and many others tied the crime to former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on COVID-19, which has been a focus in the press and among other commentators, including the Biden White House, since the pandemic began.
Right Media Says the Left is Pushing A False Racial Narrative
Meanwhile, media outlets on the right, such as Reason (Lean Right) and the Daily Wire (Right bias) said the media was largely “speculating” on the motive in the early hours after the incident. In later days, some writers, such as a commentator at The Federalist (Right bias), accused the media of ignoring the gunman’s “real motivation,” which is “sexual pathology…an indictment not of racism but prevailing sexual attitudes among our elite.”
A commentator writing in the Washington Examiner (Lean Right media bias), pointed to last summer’s “Defund the Police” activism, writing that “the culprit [of the surge in hate crime] is actually the very sort of underpolicing the Left has been advocating for the past year...the violence is concentrated in cities that are underpolicing in response to anti-police activism.”
The Daily Wire said the media, including The New York Times, was quick to connect the shooting spree to recent attacks on elderly individuals of Asian descent in places like San Francisco and New York City, “though even the most high-profile of those attacks do not appear to have been motivated specifically by racial animus.”
Another commentator writing in the Examiner noted that FBI statistics suggest most anti-Asian violence comes from black perpetrators, so this is not an issue of white supremacist attitudes. They accuse Vox of having “claimed that interracial violence between black and Asian people is a consequence of white supremacy. While being ridiculous at face value, it’s also unverifiable, which likely is the point. If you can’t disprove something based on data, then you can perpetuate the narrative..”
Gina Florio, manager of conservative commentator and talk show host Candace Owens, said the accessibility of porn, strip clubs, and brothels is the real societal issue that must be addressed, but the media has turned the focus on race in order to fuel a narrative of purported white supremacy in the U.S. in order to “get clicks and sell newspapers.”
AllSides’ Discussion on Media Coverage
The AllSides team, which is made up of people from across the political spectrum, discussed the issue and media coverage as a team.
One team member on the right noted that Asian-American racism as the motivator was never once endorsed by law enforcement or the suspect, and was entirely the result of speculation. They raised the question: was the media right or wrong to tie this incident to a purported rise in Asian-American racism?
Some of us at AllSides with Center and Lean Right leanings also took issue with the media’s focus on unreliable numbers given by Stop AAPI Hate. Because this group began tracking reports on March 19 last year, some on the AllSides team noted that a year of data from this source can’t adequately point to a “rise” in incidents, since there is no baseline benchmark available. Others noted that seemingly anyone could submit a report to this group with no verification of their identity nor of the incident itself. With no way to confirm the complaints independently, this source is not one that reporters should rely on.
Some at AllSides also noted that “verbal harassment” and “shunning or avoidance” can be loosely defined and are largely subjective claims that would be difficult to prove. That means seemingly anything could come to be labeled a hate crime based on someone’s personal interpretation, perception, or feelings about an event, despite there being no objective verification of the motivations of the accused. Most of us agreed that Stop AAPI Hate’s database should not be treated as authoritative by journalists.Some on the AllSides team noted that the use of this source doesn’t mean the journalist’s conclusions about racism are necessarily wrong, but that the source they cite lacks authority.
“At a base level, it’s poor journalism to look at a survey and people reporting incidents and not investigate those incidents,” a team member with a Lean Right bias said. “It’s a completely invalid source. Maybe it would be okay for a journalist to mention this set of data if they had included a note that these were self-reported and not incidents that had been investigated or validated in any way.”
AllSides also discussed the reports from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. This data appears more credible than Stop AAPI Hate’s reporting index, given it is based on preliminary data provided by police departments, and considering that universities typically are typically considered authoritative sources. However, at least one AllSides team member with a Lean Right bias noted that academic research organizations often are biased and have a financial incentive to find issues in order to receive grant money. Regardless, most on the team felt that the study was a reasonable one for the media to cite with authority, because it includes police data, while the Stop AAPI Hate site was not authoritative, and citing it was not good journalism.
Another team member with a Lean Left bias pointed out that there is “plenty of anecdotal evidence that a rise in Asian hatred is occurring in America,” pointing to graffiti sprayed across a noodle shop in their hometown of San Antonio, TX that read “Go back 2 China” and “Hope u die,” while also noting anecdotal evidence isn’t a “typical standard.” This team member also noted the shooting was “a catalyst for the media putting attention on the issue of anti-Asian hate, and that works, even if the shooting itself wasn’t a ‘hate crime’, because the incident was still an example of violence against Asian Americans.” A Lean Right team member responded that just because there is a feeling or belief about something being a widespread issue, it doesn’t mean it really is.
In addition, our Lean Left team member said that “while the shooter might not have considered himself racially motivated, the businesses he targeted were culturally linked to Asians, and America's long history of fetishizing Asian women makes the shooter's target for alleviating his "sexual addiction" relevant to Asian Americans.”
A team member with a Center bias noted that “lots of articles on the left were talking to advocacy leaders or Asian-American small business owners, framing the story through their reactions or lens, which for local journalists is the instinctive thing to do. But at the same time, it also stirs fear in communities.”
We also noticed that people on the left were more comfortable tying the incident to racism, while those on the right said they did not want to make assumptions about someone’s internal world — a very classic difference in how people on the left and right think about racism, which AllSides describes in our Red Blue Dictionary. Conservatives tend to want concrete evidence of racism; liberals tend to point to implicit biases and culture that may back up behavior.
Advocacy Journalism or Necessary Framing?
Historically, journalists have been taught to tell people what happened, and leave any interpretations of larger trends or social change that needed to take place to commentators and opinion-page editors — but they often don’t. In the age of clickbait, the line between analysis and facts is often blurred.
So, to what extent is it okay for reporters to not only report on but to interpret events, to add layers of analysis and tie incidents to larger trends or issues? What if their conclusions and analyses are correct? What if they are wrong?
Both the horrific shooting in Atlanta and the overall data about a rise in anti-Asian crimes are worth reporting on for their own reasons. But despite the fact that six Asian Americans were killed in the shooting, there is no evidence at this time to suggest the Atlanta shooter was explicitly motivated by racism. Media outlets must take extra care in making this distinction and ensuring their readers aren’t misled.
Here at AllSides, we don’t tell you what to think. We give you all the facts, lay out the claims and beliefs on both sides, then let you draw the conclusions for yourself.
Julie Mastrine is the Director of Marketing at AllSides. She has a Lean Right bias.
This piece was reviewed by Managing Editor Henry Brechter (Center bias), CEO and co-founder John Gable (Lean Right), and Daily News Editor Joseph Ratliff (Lean Left).