A front-page headline in The Chicago Sun-Times provoked debate after Saturday’s Asiana airline tragedy in San Francisco.

Some who saw the tabloid’s cover took offense, contending that the headline –“Fright 214” — perpetuated the oft-used stereotype of an Asian accent.

“While we at the Asian American Journalists Association are willing to give The Sun-Times the benefit of the doubt, the headline used to accompany the paper’s coverage was certainly unfortunate,” said Bobby Caina Calvan, chair of AAJA MediaWatch. “An editor should have caught the racially tinged wording.”

In a brief telephone conversation on Sunday, Sun-Times Publisher/Editor-in-Chief Jim Kirk said it didn’t dawn on his editors that the play on words could be construed as offensive.

“There was nothing intentional on our part to play off any stereotypes. … If anybody was offended by that, we are sorry,” Kirk added.

“We were trying to convey the obviously frightening situation of that landing,” he said.

“While some might not be satisfied with Kirk’s response, we appreciate his quickness in responding to MediaWatch’s request for an explanation and for engaging in a conversation about fair and accurate coverage of our communities,” said Calvan.

“If The Sun-Times’ copy desk is like many others in newsrooms across the nation, it probably lacked the diversity of voices on staff that might have questioned the appropriateness of the headline.”

Similar questions were raised when ESPN used the term “chink in the armor” in a headline about NBA player Jeremy Lin. Some said it was racially tinged while others said it was an innocent mistake since the phrase itself is not a slur.

Some postings on Twitter in response to the Asiana crash have been openly racist, playing on the stereotype of Asians as bad drivers. One said, “Of course the Korean plane crashed. Asians can’t drive, what makes them think they can fly a plane.” Another said, “Damn chinks need to open their eyes.”

Nikkei View blogger Gil Asakawa wrote, “I shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed anymore, and accept the fact that there will always be idiotic people in the United States who probably function perfectly normally most of the time, and then turn into stupid racist haters the moment there’s some sort of tragedy in the world that involves people of color. Two years ago, I was dumbfounded that Americans would rant and rave about the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan and claim it was somehow ‘God’s revenge’ for Pearl Harbor. What? …

“Here I’ve been following the crash of the Asiana jetliner at SFO (an airport I often fly to and from) as a human tragedy, but a miracle with only two casualties. I’ve felt empathy for the families of the two schoolgirls who were killed, and the many survivors who were injured. But the fact that most of those onboard survived — and that 123 survivors were able to walk away without being hospitalized — is nothing short of amazing.

“But of course, the human stories of the crash don’t matter to the racists who immediately feel the need to respond with jokes about Asian stereotypes (we’re lousy drivers, har har) and hateful cracks about North Korea (hellooo, Seoul is in South Korea, and this was not an attack by Kim Jong Un on the U.S.). That such a lowbrow, juvenile mentality switches on so quickly shows that racism and prejudice are still alive and well just beneath the veneer of political correctness that people complain about.”

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