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The Foreigner with a Gun

By Rick Todd

Angie Chuang

It has almost become a commonplace event: the media reports that a lone gunman has killed several people in a public setting or someone has been caught attempting to build a bomb to cause a mass disturbance. Afterwards fingers are pointed, and if the culprit is from an immigrant ethnic group, the media makes every effort to portray this person as a “foreigner” and something “not American” according to new research by American University professor Angie Chuang.

Professor Chuang’s research has recently been published in the prominent academic journal Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. It takes a hard look at the media’s over-emphasis of mass shooters’ ethnic background by discussing two recent mass shootings, Seung-Hui Cho and his shooting in 2007 at Virginia Tech, and Jiverly Wong and his shootings in 2009 in Binghamton, New York.

The heavy emphasis on Jiverly Wong and Seung-Hui Cho's Asian identities reflect a larger pattern of defaulting to a more foreign identity when immigrant Americans, even those who are U.S. citizens, are represented in the news according to Chuang. This larger concept is at the core of Chuang's research, known as “American Otherness.”

“We are seeing people’s ethnicity being blamed for these incidents,” said Chuang. “There is a sense that the media blames the person’s foreign background for what has happened, and there is a lack of critical thinking on the part of the media as to the real motivations behind these actions.”

The subsequent media portrayal of these shootings takes center stage in Professor Chuang’s analysis. In their coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings, some journalists compared the shooter to another Asian-American mass shooter in 2004 in Wisconsin. Both were seen as being influenced by their foreign background, even though both shooters had mostly grown up in the United States and were of different ethnicities (one was of Korean descent, the other Vietnamese).

“The media is grasping at whatever it can to explain the unexplainable,” adds Chuang. “In the case with shooters of Asian descent, or any other minority ethnicity that comes from an immigrant background, we see the media not look at the individual, but instead look at the shooter’s community as being somehow responsible. These types of portrayals are careless and possibly dangerous.”

Professor Chuang has forthcoming articles on the Pakistani American convicted of attempting to bomb Times Square, as well as the African American and Jamaican immigrants known as the D.C. Snipers, who killed more than a dozen on a killing spree that terrorized the Beltway area. Chuang’s research in progress now reaches beyond the realms of crime and terrorism, examining phenomena such as the news coverage of the Dream Act, which primarily focused on Latino youth, and of the "birther" debate concerning President Barack Obama.