When nine people were shot at a Brooklyn, N.Y., house party in late June it made national headlines, even in these jaded days when we take so much violence for granted. Yet it was days before major media outlets gave any indication either of the victims’ race or that of suspects, including for a time after an arrest was made.
Reading the comments for several CNN stories, it was clear that many news consumers assumed this was so-called “black-on-black” crime anyway, particularly the racists and haters who were out in force. Many further assumed that CNN was following a “liberal agenda” in refusing to racially ID anyone.
A week later, a 16-year-old boy was murdered in downtown Indianapolis after police reported rolling mobs of “unruly youth” in the streets during the evening. Comments sections in local news media mocked the victim’s first name — Monquize — and many assumed this, too, was a “black-on-black” crime, though race was not mentioned in any early reporting of the shooting, either in newspapers or on TV.
There are countless other examples of how we report on crime in this country, and how many Americans react to our coverage. While it would be easy to go “tsk, tsk” and feel morally superior after reading the racist comments in particular (which don’t have to be repeated here), the fact is these crimes often are “black-on-black” tragedies, and it’s just as true that mainstream media outlets often suppress details on race as long as possible.
No issue in journalism today is more fraught than how we report on race and crime in America. Not surprising given that race relations overall has been the No. 1 social issue in America for more than 400 years, going back to the Colonial era.
The Brooklyn and Indianapolis shootings are the latest examples that illustrate this point. The biggest crime story involving race in recent years, of course, has been the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case. While this was not an instance involving a suspected black shooter, it was one where societal suspicion and stereotyping of young black men was at the fore, even down to which photo to use in news reports. Do we show young, “Smiling Trayvon” or older, “Menacing Trayvon”?
It’s journalism’s dirty little secret that we have trouble reporting on race and crime, yet some controversies over how we’re really doing our job have broken out in recent years.
• In June 2011, Chicago Tribune readers challenged the paper on why a series of assaults in an upper-middle-class neighborhood failed to mention either the race of the assailants or of the victims. “We do not reference race unless it is a fact that is central to telling the story,” editor Gerould Kern explained in a column he wrote at the time. “By all indications, these attacks were motivated by theft, not race. Further, there is no evidence to suggest that the victims were singled out because of their race. Therefore we did not include racial descriptions in our initial news reports. … By adhering to this practice, we guard against subjecting an entire group of people to suspicion because of the color of their skin.” (See the full column at tinyurl.com/KernReportingRace.)
• Mallary Tenore, in a circumspect Poynter.org article in 2011, described the uproar in Cleveland, Texas, after a group of black youths were arrested and accused of raping an 11-year-old Hispanic girl. No initial news report — whether in The Cleveland Advocate, the Houston Chronicle or The New York Times —mentioned anything about race or ethnicity. Only when an out-of-town black community activist alleged that blacks were being unfairly targeted as the alleged perpetrators did media outlets pay attention to those details, making racism the issue, not rape.
• The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in March 2012 that three major local television stations were “considering signing a joint agreement on coverage policies regarding Pittsburgh’s black community as part of an effort to add positive messages to the news as an offset to crime coverage. The idea was forwarded by WPXI-TV news director Mike Goldrick at the latest Black Political Empowerment Project summit on media portrayal of violence. More than 30 media and black leaders attended the summit at the Channel 11 studios in Summer Hill to discuss — and oftentimes vent — about how the city’s black community is covered by news media.
“If the only information about black people is what’s in the news, there’s a reason why the unemployment rate is astronomic and why we have all these negative issues — because the imaging of black people is extremely negative,” said Black Political Empowerment Project president Tim Stevens. “Not only does it affect the viewpoint of white people with their thoughts on black people, I say it affects the psychology of black people.”
And noted African-American scholar Thomas So well in 2012 lamented the following: “When two white newspaper reporters for the Virginian-Pilot were driving through Norfolk, and were set upon and beaten by a mob of young blacks — beaten so badly that they had to take a week off from work — that might sound like news that should have been reported, at least by their own newspaper. But it wasn’t …,” he wrote. “Media outlets that do not report the race of people committing crimes nevertheless report racial disparities in imprisonment and write heated editorials blaming the criminal-justice system.”
What is to be done, then? Report on race unencumbered, pretending that we don’t still have a problem with it in this country, arguing further that it’s not our problem if we’re contributing to stereotypes by doing so? Or, do we suppress information about race as much as possible, denying that this is a form of self-censorship, whatever the motive, and ignore the fact that we are inadvertently empowering the crazies in the white power and neo-Nazi groups?
The answer has to be, “steady as she goes.” Working journalists may need to look no further than their own media outlet’s policies, which likely will offer guidance on how to report on race and crime. Generally these policies will say to only include race when full descriptions of suspects are available that also include precise information such as height and weight, clothing, getaway car and/or other identifying features, among other details. Even Chicago Tribune’s Kern, in the controversy cited above, declared that he would have included race in the description of the victims and the alleged perpetrator if it were part of a series of identifying details that were relevant to the story (i.e. he was protesting including race as a sole identifier or where he thought it was irrelevant).
The Maynard Institute, SPJ and Poynter all have cautioned against gratuitous references to race that might contribute to stereotypes. Poynter’s Kelly McBride, for example, has suggested the following criteria in determining whether race should be an issue in news coverage:
• What’s the relevance of race? How do I know that?
• Am I making that assertion myself, or do I have authoritative sources to make that assertion?
• If race is relevant simply because “the community” or “commenters” were talking about it, is it a few people, or is the conversation widespread?
• If I’m going to introduce race as an element in a rape story, how can I make sure the views of the primary stakeholders are accurate and accurately represented?
A standard argument heard in newsrooms is that because there are 40 million African-Americans in this country, for example, it does no good to identify a suspect by race alone. Hard to argue with that. Yet policies about just when to include race, if at all, even when clearly stated and reasonably assembled, appear to be inconsistently applied across the country. Some crime reporting will have detailed descriptions of a suspect’s height, build, scarring and more, but leave out race altogether, while other reports will have no suspect descriptions at all, even though the crime victims clearly saw the perpetrator(s) and may be quoted at length.
Nevertheless, official news outlet policies almost always allow for inclusion of a suspect’s race or ethnicity when it adds to other identifying details. That’s the policy that should be followed and that can be followed without compromising one’s journalistic ethics and responsibilities.
Abe Aamidor worked at The Indianapolis Star for 22 years and is a past president of The Indianapolis Newspaper Guild. He is co-author of “Media Smackdown: Deconstructing the News and the Future of Journalism,” written with Jim A. Kuypers of Virginia Tech and Susan Wiesinger of Cal State-Chico.