Posted on May 14, 2008

Omitting Race: Politically Correct or Good Crime Reporting?

Sally Lehrman, Quill (Society of Professional Journalists), May 2008


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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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. {snip}


Even if all we care about is catching the criminal, identifying race in a news report could easily do more harm than help. In one well-known case in Oneonta, N.Y., an elderly white woman whose home was burglarized remembered little except that the intruder was a young black man with a cut on his hand. Police collected the names of black male students at the local state university and stopped 200 young African Americans in all, checking for cuts. In the end, they never arresting anyone. When police and the community are blinded by ideas about what a particular race looks like, whole groups suffer from suspicion and the actual culprit can escape.