Paper’s Edict Draws Dissent

Jay Fitzgerald, Boston Herald, July 15

An e-mail exchange about the use of racial descriptions in newspaper crime stories led to the suspension of two Eagle-Tribune staffers and a mini-brouhaha about political correctness run amok at the Lawrence newspaper.

The incident began late last month when an Eagle-Tribune production editor sent a company-wide e-mail to reporters and editors announcing a new edict.

“Refrain from using race to describe or identify people in crime stories, for example, ‘a black man in a green jacket and baseball cap.’”

The message said that “unless the rest of the description is detailed enough to be meaningful and distinguishes that person from other members of his or her race, such sketchy descriptions are meaningless, may apply to large numbers of innocent people and tend to stereotype ethnic groups.”

Ken Johnson, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, fired back in his own e-mail.

“This strikes me as just so much wrongheaded PC nonsense,” wrote Johnson, in a copy of the exchange obtained by the Herald.

“Are we to write that ‘Three men from east Texas were convicted of dragging James Byrd behind a pickup truck until he was decapitated’ without mentioning that the thugs were white and the victim black?” asked Johnson, referring to the infamous 1998 racial killing in Jasper, Texas.

A staffer, Bryan McGonigle, then chipped in with his own anti-edict sarcasm.

“Actually, the victim would technically be black and blue and maybe red all over,” he wrote. “And he’d be called a ‘cerebrally-challenged American with dramatic skull deficiency.’ “

{snip}

But the suspension of Johnson, who is widely respected at the paper, shocked many staff members who believed he was simply challenging a guideline on well-articulated principles.

Johnson and McGonigle declined comment and referred questions to managing editor Al White, who could not be reached for comment.

In a message to staffers after the e-mail exchange, editor-in-chief Bill Ketter defended the caution on identifying people by race in crime stories. “PC has nothing to do with it,” he wrote. “Being responsible and fair has everything to do with it.” Ketter couldn’t be reached.

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