Two frightening killers were on the loose, and the Sacramento Bee’s readers wanted to protect themselves. They wanted more than descriptions of the attackers’ clothing at the time of the murders. They wanted to know the criminals’ race. The Bee, they accused editors, had allowed outdated policies to endanger public safety.
Challenged by readers and by bloggers who don’t adhere to journalistic conventions, many editors have been thinking about loosening their rules for identifying race in crime stories.
In general, news outlets have avoided racial and ethnic identifiers unless they were important to the case, or, perhaps, if victims’ descriptions were very detailed. They’d apply a test: Was the racial information useful to people in the community who might know the attacker or want to avoid harm themselves? Or was it so general that it only merely contributed to stereotypes about one group or another?
While many readers writing to the Bee and other outlets have attacked such reasoning as “political correctness” run amok, it’s actually plain good sense. There’s good reason to question the accuracy of most racial and ethnic identifiers, social science and legal experts have found, especially in crime situations. Why include anything that is vague and doesn’t add accurate details to a story?
First, there’s the fuzziness of the very description. The skin color of people who are black, white, Asian or Hispanic varies greatly and can overlap. Family history, geography, even the amount of sun that an area normally gets can make a big difference. The skin of a “Hispanic” man, for instance, could be anywhere from rich black to creamy white.
We have a long history of mixed offspring in this country, and as mixed race families grow in number, simple categories organized by skin color, hair texture and eye shape are less and less useful. In one crime reported in the Los Angeles Times in 2001, witnesses described a single robber variously as white, African American, Puerto Rican, Brazilian and Middle Eastern.
Consider, too, how “race” affects our thinking, especially in a situation like a crime. More often than any other type of error, wrongful convictions of innocent people can be traced back to mistaken identification. Memory is delicate, and especially so when it comes to emotional situations, as well as cross-racial descriptions. In one classic study testing racial prejudice, participants who witnessed an event with one black man and one white man were more likely to report that a black person held a knife even when it was the white man.
More recent implicit association tests have found that overall, white people more quickly “see” an object in a black man’s hand as a weapon, even if it is a tool or a can of Coke. In a review of such research in the journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law, experimental psychologists Ralph Norman Haber and Lyn Haber concluded that eyewitnesses sometimes remember events more in accordance with their own beliefs and expectations than with whatever actually happened.
Race and ethnicity in police reports and recounted by victims, then, can easily be wrong. So why would we use them, if it’s not our habit to reprint errors? And in the case of crime, inaccuracy has big repercussions. A vague description of two 5-foot-2 Hispanic men between the ages of 18 and 25, for instance, might implicate any number of young men on their way to the grocery store or out to a movie.
The harm done is not hypothetical. In some states, DNA information is collected from anyone arrested for a crime, placing the donor permanently in a database of potential offenders.
Even if all we care about is catching the criminal, identifying race in a news report could easily do more harm than help. In one well-known case in Oneonta, N.Y., an elderly white woman whose home was burglarized remembered little except that the intruder was a young black man with a cut on his hand. Police collected the names of black male students at the local state university and stopped 200 young African Americans in all, checking for cuts. In the end, they never arresting anyone. When police and the community are blinded by ideas about what a particular race looks like, whole groups suffer from suspicion and the actual culprit can escape.
“The only time we would use race would be an extraordinary incident where it would be extremely relevant,” said Brian Schwaner, news editor at the Associated Press bureau in New Orleans.
Community sensitivities should be a concern, he said, especially when the effects of sloppy reporting are not benign.
“When in doubt, leave it out,” Schwaner said.