How Not to Talk About Asiana Airlines's Crash Landing

From expressing relief that it was Chinese passengers (not Koreans) that died, to announcing that you weren't on the flight, there are some lessons about Asiana Airlines Flight 214 that go beyond what went wrong with the doomed 777. Over the weekend, it seemed like we learned a lot of things about the flight, the pilots, the intricacies of the Boeing 777, and the endless debate of whether or not the plane "cartwheeled." But we also learned lessons on how not to act in the face of an attention-grabbing tragedy: 

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Don't Say It was a Relief That Chinese People Died

"We just received an update that the two dead are assumed to be Chinese….We can say it is a relief at least for us," said South Korea's Yoon Kyung-min, an anchor for Channel A program in the country. Breathing a sigh of relief that Chinese people, not Korean people is pretty morbid. But there may have been something lost in translation. What Yoon was actually trying to say is that no koreans were killed in the crash landing. Channel A stated as much in a statement (translated and picked up by The Wall Street Journal):

The comment was made to emphasize the fact that there is no Korean dead in the accident, which is a relief for us. We apologize for not running the live show smoothly.

The written statement is a smidge better, particularly because it leaves out the whole part about Chinese people dying. But that still did not play out well in China and Chinese social media, with Yoon being called racist, callous and China's Global Times calling him "indifferent and apathetic", The Journal reports.

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Yoon's commentary also feeds into the over-arching narrative of the crash in Korea, where papers there, like the Chosun Ilbo, are describing the crash as a "10-minute miracle" rather than a debacle from an inexperienced pilot. 

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Don't Get Too Clever with Headlines

This is the Chicago Sun-Times's front page story on the crash: 

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We get it—the crash was scary and the pun was sort of a gimme. But it's also causing controversy. No one is arguing that the crash landing wasn't scary, but some Asian American groups are pointing out that the headline easily be seen as the kind of "L-R" switch employed by a litany of derogatory jokes aimed at making fun of Asians and Asian accents. Considering that there were two Chinese passengers were killed, that headline became more hurtful to some. Anthony Tao at Beijing Cream called the headline "subliminal racism"

Speaking as an Asian American, it's really hard to convey the obnoxiousness and hurtfulness of those "R-L" of jokes. I would need three hands to tell you the number of times people have said "Flied Lice" at me to make fun of the way or my loved ones supposedly speak English (Engrish!). I can also fully understand why people might not understand the offense being taken or might think those offended are being overly-sensitive, especially if they weren't the subject of those jokes. 

"[T]he headline used to accompany the paper’s coverage was certainly unfortunate. An editor should have caught the racially tinged wording," reads a post from the Asian American Journalists Association, noting that they gave the Sun-Times the benefit of the doubt.

"If the Sun-Times’ copy desk is like many others in newsrooms across the nation, it probably lacked the diversity of voices on staff that might have questioned the appropriateness of the headline," they added. "There was nothing intentional on our part to play off any stereotypes. … If anybody was offended by that, we are sorry," Sun-Times editor Jim Kirk told the group.

Don't Say You Weren't in the Crash 

Sheryl Sandberg was not Flight 214 and let everyone know shortly after the plane went down. The only problem is that no one, outside of her friends and family were really asking. Valleywag's Sam Biddle has a harsh takedown of the Facebook COO, stating "it's not news when someone isn't somewhere, but Facebook's top celebrity author sure convinced the internet otherwise" in a post titled "Sheryl Sandberg Successfully Makes SF Plane Crash About Herself." As Biddle points out, no one was really asking whether or not Sandberg was on the plane until Sandberg said she wasn't on the plane. Biddle's point is fair in that Sandberg not being on the plane became a subplot and overshadowed the people who weren't Sheryl Sandberg who were actually on the plane that crashed. 

But how much of that blame goes to Sandberg and how much to the media looking for a famous face and name to attach to the story? And in Sandberg's defense, there were people asking if she had been on the flight. (Note to Biddle and anyone else criticizing Sandberg: the next time there's a disaster in your city — even if it's in another part of town nowhere near you, call your mom and tell her you're okay. She'll appreciate it.) She had been constantly posting from South Korea in the days before the crash, and from this previous post, it's clear people had been asking her at least privately if she was okay: 

Sandberg, of all people, should know that the blurry distinction between public and private on Facebook. And while posting a note on Facebook is an efficient way of reaching a lot of people you want to tell, sharing that info with the 1.2 million people who follow her page makes it seem more like a press release. But it's also important to remember that it wasn't Sheryl Sandberg writing the stories focusing on her status updates.