Posted on September 15, 2004

A Caution On Stereotypes In Reporting Of Crime News

Jerry Finch, (Va.), Aug. 22

Wanted for assault: Two white male teenagers, perhaps 15 to 18 years old, about 5-foot-9 and 140 pounds, wearing blue jeans and T-shirts.

Got it? Are you confident you could recognize the suspects off that description? Or do you agree that it’s likely thousands of youths in the Richmond area fit the image?

Substitute black, brown, bronze or a skin color of choice as a descriptive feature. Does that narrow the search?

Some believe it would help, given reaction to an article in The Times-Dispatch two weeks ago about the rape and assault on a young couple in Libby Hill Park on Church Hill. Complaints came by phone and e-mail to the reporter, news editors and the ombudsman.

The article reported the assailants ranged in age from 16 to 19 years old, one perhaps 5-foot-8 and 130 pounds, another 5-10 and 120-130 pounds, a third 5-10 and 160 pounds. The victims couldn’t describe the fourth assailant, but said all were wearing blue jeans and T-shirts.

Why, several neighborhood residents asked, did the newspaper omit the race of the suspects?

“There are four brutal criminals roaming my neighborhood raping, robbing and beating people, and your story didn’t say what color they are,” wrote one, who said skin color would help identify the youths. “It certainly is important in helping someone remember what they may have seen 30 minutes earlier, or if the four are together again in my neighborhood tonight.”

Said another complainant: “You did a disservice to our neighborhood and jeopardized our safety by not giving a complete description of them. Why give any description if you are not going to give a complete description?”

A retired lawyer said The Times-Dispatch “is not living in the real world.” He charged the newspaper with following a “politically correct” course and ignoring the obvious — the prevalence of “black crime in Richmond.”

To answer the main question, the newspaper didn’t give a complete description because one wasn’t available.

For The Times-Dispatch, and other major newspapers across the nation, race of a criminal suspect is included only as part of a complete description that would distinguish the suspect from the general population. Police often have only a vague description of a suspect that could apply to a vast number of people.

A Times-Dispatch policy statement on crime-suspect descriptions advises the news staff to be cautious about using race to describe an unidentified suspect. Racial identification alone, the statement emphasizes, could be used to stereotype an entire population.

“Describing an unidentified suspect by race is acceptable only when we have additional information that collectively could help someone make an identification,” the policy reads.

Unique details about the suspect’s appearance or information about a vehicle used in the crime could be sufficient to add race to a description, “but height, weight and race alone would almost never suffice, nor would race and clothing alone.”

T-shirts and blue jeans? That’s the common uniform of teenagers in the Richmond area.

Every news policy is subject to a stipulation that its application may depend upon the prevailing circumstances. Situations differ, and whether to include race in a description can be a judgment call. Usage sometimes depends on whether the race of those involved is relevant to the crime. Consequently, describing an unidentified suspect by race must be approved by the senior editor on duty.

The news staff is cautioned in the policy statement that a description of an unidentified suspect should be based on the rationale “that a person who might know or have been near the suspect could identify that person based on the description.”

A problem with newspaper policy statements is they can be forgotten or overlooked in the hustle to print. A follow-up story a week later on the Libby Hill attacks reported police had said “only that the assailants were black teens ‘from 16 to 19 years old’ wearing jeans and T-shirts.”

The racial identification was marked in copy by a news editor, but wasn’t deleted and wasn’t cleared with a senior editor. “That was a mistake,” said a supervising editor.

The policy remains in force. Fairness may not always be achieved in the rush to report the news, but it is a constant goal.