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 The Bee, they accused editors, had allowed outdated policies to endanger public safety.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 …