When Race Is Relevant
Aamidor, Abe, The Quill
IN THE QUEST FOR ETHICS AND SENSITIVITY, ARE NEWS OUTLETS LEAVING OUT IMPORTANT DETAILS TOO OFTEN?
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 lune 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/KemReportingRace.)
* 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. …