Bloggers Force Mainstream Media to Identify the Race of Suspects in Crime Stories

By Mick Gregory

One of The Sacramento Bee’s practices for several years has been when and how the paper identifies the race of suspects in crime stories. There standards copied those of the stars, the Washington Post, New York Times and San Francisco Chronilce.

The paper allowed the use of race only when it is accompanied by a detailed physical description or when reporting a serial crime or when using police sketches of suspects. Which was, as you might suspect, not very often.

The rules were set by editors “to avoid racial stereotyping caused by vague or unreliable racial descriptions” provided by police, crime victims or witnesses.

Not surprisingly, bloggers have accused the paper of political correctness, endangering lives, and the issue’s volatility has ebbed and flowed, sometimes lying dormant for months only to arise anew in the wake of a particularly heinous crime.

It’s burning hot now in the aftermath of the slaying in Sacramento of a young father and his 7-month-old son and the paper’s reluctance until several days had passed to provide racial descriptions of the suspects.

Now, the paper’s policy is under review, according to Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez, who is leaning toward modifying the policy to allow the use of race as part of a general description of suspects.

And while the most recent killings have sparked the review, there also are other important factors involved, Rodriguez said.

One is the inconsistency with which the policy has been applied in stories and the other is the Internet, which provides information bypassing The Bee’s standards and thus raising questions about the paper’s relevancy.

For example, The Bee finds itself in the weird position of adhering to its policy at the same time its readers are posting online comments at sacbee.com providing the racial descriptions of the suspects taken from information released by the Sheriff’s Department.

Likewise, other local media outlets are disseminating the racial descriptions.

“It is apparent that The Bee is more interested in political correctness rather than trying to assist the community … in solving this tragic, violent crime,” read one of many critical online postings.

“Just what is the responsibility of The Bee and the editors?” e-mailed a reader who identified himself as a retired policeman from Rancho Murieta. “To give us half of a story? To protect a certain race of people from what? Or, to put the information out there fairly, let it fall where it falls, and give us the information and tools to protect ourselves?”

Said Sherryl Campbell, an El Dorado County real estate agent, in her e-mail: “What EXACTLY do the suspects look like? … Please start using real descriptions and telling us what the suspects actually look like and give up this stranglehold that political correctness has placed on our society. I have always believed that journalists should be telling the truth, isn’t that your job in our community?”

Rodriguez said he will meet with editors and reporters in re-evaluating the policy, which was adopted about 15 years ago.

He said the policy has been controversial even within the newsroom, with some staunchly supporting it and others thinking it is too rigid.

While a change may be in the offing, there remain real concerns about the value of racial descriptions when other identifying details are sorely lacking.

In the current case, for example, the racial descriptions of the two suspects provided early on by authorities were as follows: “a black male adult wearing a black hooded sweat shirt … (and) a Hispanic male adult wearing a green shirt and a green Oakland A’s hat.”

That’s a description that could cover thousands of black and Hispanic men in the region, particularly in the absence of details such as height or weight or ranges in age or other specifics, which only came days later.

As such, the descriptions failed to meet the paper’s standards to include race as a detail. And that’s what triggered reader criticism.

The paper’s initial description of the suspects said only that one man was wearing a black, hooded sweat shirt and the other a green shirt and green Oakland A’s hat.

That’s just about useless.

Rodriguez questioned how such general information, even when race is included, is truly helpful. And he said he is worried about racism and those who are more motivated with keeping a racial scorecard than in the crime.

“I don’t want to feed into that,” Rodriguez said, “but on the other hand … it’s not something we can run away from, either.”

Rodriguez said he is well aware that, from a practical standpoint, The Bee found itself isolated in its initial reporting by not including racial descriptions while everyone else, from media competitors to readers, had the information.

So, Rodriguez asked, what’s the point of holding out?

“We’re supposed to be giving all the information available,” he said.

Is it enough to stay the course for the noble purpose of avoiding racial stereotypes, which is at the core of the current policy?

“Have we succeeded? I don’t know,” said Rodriguez. In this Internet age, he said, you can’t pretend readers are clueless about finding information.

“There are so many information channels available today and that has caused me to be thinking about this for a while,” even before the recent crime brought the issue to the public forefront again.

This is an important issue for the paper, and one Rodriguez said he is giving much thought to.

Among the questions: How do you balance a paper’s responsibility to set and maintain publishing standards when the information in question is already being freely exchanged by readers and the public via the Internet?

In the world of the Web, do readers still benefit from the paper sticking to its policy? Is there a way to include racial descriptions more often in stories without stereotyping? Are yesterday’s well-intentioned standards moot today?

I would like to hear your thoughts about this via an online chat. To participate, please go to http://www.sacbee.com/public and I will post your questions and observations.

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