My favorite writer at The Moderate Voice is Polimom and it’s good to see that she’s back and blogging again! Today she writes that the Houston Chronicle’s policy of using "racial or ethnic identification only when it is clearly pertinent" went too far by failing to include important information about the at-large suspect:
On the north side of Houston yesterday, an 11-year-old boy was almost snatched. After being approached, slapped, and thrown to the ground, he somehow managed to escape and run home.
Luckily, the boy was able to give a description of both his attacker and his vehicle, and Houston police are trying to find the very dangerous would-be abductor.
Here’s the online description from the local ABC affiliate:
The suspect is described as an African American male wearing a black t-shirt and blue jeans. The student said the man who attacked him is 5′11″ to 6′ feet tall, between 35 and 40 years old, weighs 160 to 175 pounds and has black hair. The student said he saw the man driving a black four-door Cadillac from the model years 1991 to 1995.
And here (as of this posting at 11:50 am) is the description fromthe Houston Chronicle:
The alleged abductor is described as 5 feet 11 inches to about 6 feet tall. He is between 35 and 40 years old and weights 160 to 175 pounds. He has black hair. The student told police he saw the man driving a black four-door Cadillac from the model years 1991 to 1995.
Obviously, the Chronicle’s version is missing a couple of potentially helpful identifying items: specifically, his clothes and his ethnicity.
Does anybody but me see a problem here?
Sure do. The Chronicle has – justifiably – come under some criticism for this policy in the past and even addressed the issue in its own About blog. Steve Jetton writes:
Race matters to some readers, particularly when the Chronicle doesn’t report the race of a crime suspect. A couple of e-mails I received from readers best illustrate the consternation (and I’m being kind) that some readers feel when we don’t report the race of a suspect.
I find it interesting that an article about a murder where police are seeking information from the public, gives detailed descriptions of the alleged perpetrators except for their race. This simple, yet critical, piece of information is withheld even though the article states that their images were captured by the surveillance camera. If this is Chronicle policy, it is to the detriment of public safety.
The Chronicle’s stylebook guidelines are sensible and straightforward:
Use a racial or ethnic identification only when it is clearly pertinent. If you would not normally identify a person as being white in a story, do not use racial identity. For example, if you would not write: "Dan Rather, the white anchor of the CBS Nightly News," then do not write, "Connie Chung, noted Asian-American newscaster …"
Race should not be used in a police description that is too skimpy to identify a suspect, such as "a black man in his 20s." But a complete description (several elements, such as height, weight and personal characteristics) should always include race.
Jetton and the Chroncle both go too far, as in the insipid example he gave above, something that’s exemplified in Polimon’s post. Why was the highly pertinent information about the suspect’s coloring not released? There can be only one reason: to avoid the possibility of the Chronicle being tarred with the "racist" tag.
I understand that some readers like to keep score, particularly on matters of race. But when it comes to crime reporting providing readers with a detailed description of a suspect – identifying marks, hair color, clothes, etc. – is far more useful toward nabbing the bad guy than race alone. That’s hardly "PC."
Au contraire. For most people the information is not about keeping score but rather a subconscious tabulation or, dare I say it, profiling of their own personal threat index. Some will argue that this is unacceptable, that people have no right to evaluate the facts of a criminal case and make up their own mind about how it impacts them. This is, of course, not true.
Others will argue, quite stridently, most of the time, that the Chronicle and other news agencies have the responsibility to present a race-neutral view of the world that is offensive to no one. This is also a falsehood that, when it is obeyed, fundamentally shakes the foundation of trust that the news media is based on.
Facts are the business of newspapers. Opinions and biases, whether right or wrong, positive or negative, should be identified as such and preferably left to the editorial pages. The facts of criminal cases are that a man or woman of a given appearance committed the act. The fact of the criminal’s race may not be known but it is always relevant, even if it’s only to the media’s consumers.
Race-based advocacy groups are often behind the neutering of media agencies. But they would be well-advised to ask themselves what the problem they are trying to solve is.
Is it important that X% of crimes reported by the media are committed by the group they claim to represent? Or is it important that they feel that the media is reporting that too many of their people are committing crimes?
Whether consciously or not, these groups have landed hard on the answer to the latter question as their proving ground. But a more productive approach would be to admit that their group’s actions are disproportionally criminal and actively seek to reduce the number and violence level of those crimes.
As for the Chronicle, I hope that this case forces the editorial board to reconsider their ill-advised policy. Report the facts and let the people decide what is important. That’s Journalism 101. Or it ought to be.