Cho Seung-Hui or Seung-Hui Cho?

How the media chose a name for the Virginia Tech gunman.

Cho Seung-Hui

On Tuesday morning, Virginia Tech and police officials revealed the identity of the student gunman behind the Virginia Tech shootings. In the media blitz that followed, many news organizations referred to the killer as “Cho Seung-Hui”; others used the Americanized version, “Seung-Hui Cho.” How did the news outlets decide which name to use?

They made their own decisions based on the little information they had at the time. Reuters, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, among others, went with Cho Seung-Hui, putting the family name first because that was how authorities had released the information. News desks in Asia tend to follow the tradition of listing the family name first, but in America, it’s often left up to the subject of the article. In general, a reporter would ask an interviewee what name he or she prefers, but in this case, Cho was dead, and no one from his family could be reached. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, had concluded that “Cho” ought to be listed first because a state trooper of Korean origin who was working on the case recommended the more formal expression.

At the Washington Post, editors debated the matter of the name several times. The paper heard from people who knew the student that he sometimes went by the single name “Cho.” By Thursday it was clear there was a conflict, as the paper had learned that the gunman had written the Americanized name on a speeding ticket and on a mental-health form. (At this point, they’re still calling him Cho Seung Hui.)

The Asian version of the name—Cho Seung-Hui—appeared to be more widespread, in part because of its use in the ubiquitous wire stories from Reuters and the AP. As a result, some Korean-Americans felt media groups were playing up Cho’s foreign-ness, according to the Asian American Journalists Association, which advised reporters to use the American order. As of Wednesday, Reuters was sticking with the Asian version, partly to conform with coverage from other news organizations. The AP, on the other hand, is investigating the name because of inconsistencies among various documents. (The wire service has its own inconsistencies: Official AP style eliminates hyphens for North Korean names—like “Kim Jong Il”—but includes them for South Koreans—like “Roh Moo-hyun.”)

National Public Radio, ABC News, the Los Angeles Times, and others went with the American format of the name. They reasoned that Cho had been in the United States since 1992, and there was other evidence to suggest he preferred the American way. For instance, he used “Seung Cho” when he handed in work for his playwriting class. The L.A. Times also learned that a name tag found in Cho’s suite said “Seung” and that Princeton University records showed that his sister had also Americanized her name. ABC News arrived at its decision after talking to its own producer in South Korea, producers in the United States, and staffers of Korean descent. CBS News made a decision late Wednesday to switch to the American style after it learned from the shooter’s former principal that he was known as Seung-Hui Cho in high school.

Bonus Explainer: In between the two rounds of shootings, Cho sent NBC a manifesto containing videos and photographs, some of which have been shown by other broadcasters. Did the rival networks have to pay for the images?

No. The package falls under the doctrine of fair use, which gives networks the ability to borrow unique and newsworthy information from each other. Another example might be an important interview with a high-ranking official that only one network scored. That meant that the networks were able to take the Cho footage from NBC at no cost, immediately after it aired.

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Explainer thanks Janice Lee of the Asian American Journalists Association, Robert McCartney of the Washington Post, and Jeffrey Schneider of ABC News.