Philly Photo Controversy a Black-and-White Issue

Article excerpt

Except for editors who are charged with balancing accuracy, fairness, and the truth in their news reports

It's a tabloid tradition: using your cover as a most-wanted poster in the hope of helping police catch criminal suspects while giving readers a chance to help. What could be a better public service than that? And if some of the alleged bad guys are caught because readers happened to recognize them, well, so much the better, right?

Not necessarily.

What if the people you spread across the front and inside pages, like fugitives on a post-office wall, are all black, or Hispanic, or a mix of the two? Should you consider the racial aspects and worry about reinforcing stereotypes or offending minority readers? Or should you simply go with graphics based on the facts?

Editors at the Philadelphia Daily News had to look at those issues recently after running a cover story on dozens of the city's murder suspects who were still at large, all of whom happened to be nonwhite. When the four-page report ran Aug. 22, with 15 of the suspects' mug shots on the cover and 27 more inside, reaction was swift and angry.

The paper has received about 150 phone calls and nearly 100 e-mail messages from readers criticizing the assemblage of photos as racist. In addition, some black leaders called for the resignations of Editor Zachary Stalberg and Managing Editor Ellen Foley as well as a boycott of the paper.

"I expected a reaction, but I didn't expect it to be quite as many people and quite as many heartfelt thoughts," Foley told E&P. Stalberg could not be reached for comment last week.

Foley apologized in a reaction story that ran the next day. She also wrote a separate apology column published Aug. 30 in which she said it was a mistake to run the photos without addressing why none of the suspects were white. Police theorized that one of the likely reasons was that white residents have less fear of police than blacks and, therefore, are more cooperative in searching for criminals. …