Asiana Airlines to Sue Oakland TV Station Over Use of Racist 'Names'

Updated: 7/17/13, 10:31am ET – Updated with statement from Asiana Airlines dropping the lawsuit.


By Manuel McDonnell Smith

On Monday, Asiana Airlines confirmed that it will seek legal recourse against Oakland’s KTVU after the station used ethnically and racially insensitiveand inaccurate”names” to identify the crew aboard Flight 214, which crashed last weekend while landing at San Francisco International Airport, killing three passengers.

The airing of the offensive names, described as a “joke” by some, was no laughing matter to many people, including the leadership of the Asian American Journalists Association, which issued a statement saying, “Those names were not only wrong, but so grossly offensive that it’s hard for us at the Asian American Journalists Association to fathom how those names made it on the broadcast.”

Just 24 hours later, however, Asiana changed course, releasing another statement that announced they were scrapping the lawsuit. “Asiana Airlines has decided not to proceed with the case since KTVU has issued a formal apology and in order for us to focus all our efforts on managing the aftermath of the accident,” the South Korean company said.

The Offending Incident

Initially, KTVU, the Bay Area’s FOX affiliate, was acclaimed for its breaking, first-on-the-scene coverage of the accident. But days later, any goodwill and appreciation for the station’s coverage was quickly replaced by awe when it rushed to air with obviously erroneous information about the pilots involved in the crash.

Claiming “new information” learned by the station’s news team, an anchor reported that the station had confirmed the identities of the four pilots aboard the Boeing 777. She then proceeded to read four distinct and distasteful Asian-sounding “names.” Not only were the insults read on-air, they were also broadcast in full-screen text. Clips of the offensive report have also been widely shared online and in social-media circles.

Shifting the Blame

Fifteen minutes after the names were initially broadcast, the station rushed an apology to air, blaming the incident on information it confirmed with “an NTSB official in Washington.” Scrambling to account for the error, officials at the National Transportation Safety Board pinned the problem on “a summer intern [who] acted outside of the scope of his authority in confirming the names of the flight crew on the aircraft.”

Many were stunned that no one questioned the plausibility of the names in the newsroom of a station serving one of the nation’s most concentrated Asian populations. President and General Manager Tom Raponi issued a statement pledging that station managers have begun “reviewing our procedures to ensure that this type of error does not happen again.” Later, on the station’s early-evening newscast, anchors offered further explanation, saying, “We made several mistakes. First of all, we never read the names out loud, phonetically sounding them out.”

While the apologies may have been accepted by some, many feel the damage has already been inflicted, as demonstrated by Asiana’s plans to file suitagainst KTVU to “strongly respond to its racially discriminatory report,” according to an airline spokesperson.

A Case Study for Diversity

Exactly how the “names” arrived in the KTVU newsroom, and how they could have been confirmed by the NTSB, has yet to be revealed. In a statement, NTSB officials promised, “Appropriate actions will be taken to ensure that such a serious error is not repeated.”

Members of AAJA also called for “caution” in coverage of the Asian community and Asian culture, pointing out several reports that suggest that “a defect in Korean culture” contributed to the crashsomething the group says there is no proof of.

With new U.S. Census Data and other polling showing that Asian-Americans are now the fastest growing demographic group in the United States, executives can learn more about the cultural nuances of this group to ensure a diverse, hospitable workplace. A good resource to begin with is DiversityInc’s Things NOT to Say series, including “7 Things NOT to Say to Asian-Americans.”

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