For a long time, I’ve wondered about the power of words. I once came across a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” Ever since, I’ve wondered if words themselves, with no actions behind them, are really capable of causing great harm?
I’ve realized the answer is yes. I discovered this truth just over four years ago, while reading the news coverage of a terrible tragedy that occurred in Los Angeles.
On April 11, 2012, two graduate students who attended the University of Southern California were shot to death in their car, a BMW, near the university campus in Los Angeles. Their names were Ming Qu and Ying Wu, and they came from China to study electrical engineering. The murderers were Javier Bolden and Bryan Barnes. Both were arrested and later convicted of the crime in 2014.
What I remember most was a headline I saw on Internet. It made a deep impression on me: “Chinese Students Shot in a Luxury Car Near USC.” The story suggested in a very unsubtle way that the two Chinese students were killed because they were being ostentatious.
I felt uncomfortable when I read this article because I could not find details about how, exactly, these two students were being ostentatious. Without details, the article was based on assumptions. It was the power of two words “luxury car” in the headline that set the tone of the story, and led readers to believe that Ming Qu and Ying Wu were did something wrong and were not just innocent victims.
Then I read the comments below the article which really shocked me. Some of the popular comments even showed “clapping” and “celebration” icons. “It is good to know that two bad guys got killed!” said one response. “It’s hard to believe that those two students can afford a BMW. Their parents must be corrupt!” read another comment, which many users liked.
I believe the words “luxury car” in the headline were like a fuse that cast the two students and their parents in a terrible light. The descriptions in the article were also biased. Even so, I still couldn’t understand the lack of sympathy regarding the two students’ death.
Behind the force of provocative words, the truth often gets lost. In journalism, words like “ostentatious” and “luxury car” have powerful effects on readers regardless of the journalists’ intentions. In this case, a few words and sentences completely changed the meanings of the lives of the murdered students. They became stereotypes of spoiled Chinese students in America and were portrayed as getting what they deserved for driving a BMW.
Fortunately, many journalists with better intentions reported a different, more accurate account of what happed to Ming Qu and Ying Wu. First of all, it was incorrectly stated that Ming Qu’s BMW was new and cost $60,000. It was found that the BMW was nearly ten years old, and Ming had paid $10,000 for it (not that the price of the car should have been relevant, anyway). He did not own a car during his first two years at USC, but needed one to commute to a job. He was also generous and often gave rides to his friends. Ying and Ming shared an apartment with friends in an unsafe neighborhood in order to save money. Nothing indicated they were spoiled or ostentatious.
After the murders, I met a teacher who knew the two students. His words also told a different story. With moist eyes, he said, “They were both outstanding students in school. I can’t understand why most of the news reports guided people to think negatively. Why didn’t those journalists report the event in a normal way?”
It was the first time I felt the power of not only words, but also the importance of respectful journalism. Most people seem to blindly trust journalists, because they are supposed to report the truth objectively. Because of this, journalists must be aware of the power of their words and choose them responsibly. A few biased words can have a profoundly destructive effect.
In my mind, Ming Qu and Ying Wu suffered unspeakably – their lives taken by the hands of murderers and their reputations destroyed by the fingertips of a few journalists. Perhaps the journalists believed reporting the story in such a way would increase the popularity of their article. But clearly this is wrong – page views should never come at the expense of truth.
Through my extensive reading on Ming Qu and Ying Wu, I’ve gained a deep appreciation for the power of words and respect for those who strive to write truthfully. This has inspired me to become a journalist committed to reporting extensively researched, unbiased news. This is the heart of good, honest journalism, and the right way to contribute to society.