AAJA urges caution in blaming South Korean culture for Asiana airline crash

A passenger reads a newspaper reporting about Asiana Airlines Flight 214 which took off from Seoul and crashed while landing at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, on a subway train in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, July 8, 2013. The headline reads "Two people died and five people are in serious condition." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

A passenger reads a newspaper reporting about Asiana Airlines Flight 214 which took off from Seoul and crashed while landing at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, on a subway train in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, July 8, 2013. The headline reads “Two people died and five people are in serious condition.” (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

When tragedy strikes, we understandably want to know why and how. Such is the case with Asiana Flight 214, which came to a fiery landing in San Francisco on July 6. The crash killed two teenaged girls and injured scores of the 305 others on board.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, and the focus appears to center on what transpired in the cockpit as the Boeing 777 made its descent into SFO. We are sure the NTSB will conduct a thorough inquiry, and we await the agency’s report.

MediaWatch, the watchdog arm of the Asian American Journalists Association, is concerned, however, about the attention given by some in the news media suggesting that a defect in Korean culture contributed to the crash.

An examination of the training and experience of Flight 214’s pilots are certainly justified. And so, too, is the apparent lack of communication within the cockpit. But while the role of culture is an interesting line of inquiry, it is a tricky task to pursue. Therefore, we urge care and sensitivity.

Several media outlets have raised the issue of culture by referring to a 2008 book that partly examined a 1997 Korean Air crash in Guam. According to its author, Malcolm Gladwell, Korea’s hierarchical social structure and its deference to age-based authority created a cockpit environment that contributed to the accident. But much has changed since then, Gladwell noted.

In recent days, other reports have raised the kind of skepticism that should have been reported from the start. Clearly, it was premature to suggest that some ethnic-based hierarchy precipitated the Asiana accident. There’s no proof culture played a role in the crash.

It’s true South Korea has a culture steeped in tradition, ritual and social niceties. But so do other countries, many of which have excellent air safety records. As aviation experts have noted, South Korea has done much to improve its pilot training over the years.

For sure, there are many unanswered questions surrounding Flight 214. We all want to know what happened in the moments leading to the ill-fated landing. Until we know more, let’s be careful about our speculation and remain vigilant in reporting the story fairly and accurately.

Paul Cheung, AAJA President
Bobby Caina Calvan, MediaWatch Chair