Victims, Suspects and Race: Delicate Issues for Newspapers

Ombudsman

November 08, 1992|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

When Baltimore area residents hear or read about crimes, many instantly speculate on the race of the suspects: black, white, Asian, Hispanic or what?

Newspaper people are no different. When I came to The Baltimore Sun three decades ago as a young reporter covering crime, one or two of the editors would read my stories and sometimes ask, "White or black"? They knew the fact wasn't needed in the story, but they were curious.

I was a naive white guy from a small New England town of 99.9 per cent whites and little crime. My problem was I often couldn't answer the editors' questions because I usually didn't care. As time went on, I learned how curious many people in Baltimore are about race and crime. We wish it weren't so, but crime and race are tied together in people's minds.

In recent months, frustrated readers have been calling about senseless violence.

A black reader told me she was heart-broken over black-on-black crime but felt The Sun didn't hit white crime hard enough and didn't write enough positive things about blacks. She asked for coverage of an anti-crime meeting she was trying to organize, and I said we're interested.

White readers wondered why we don't mention the race of missing or captured suspects in some stories. An African American staffer who teaches college journalism said his black students ask the same questions.

Some reporters and editors here feel that The Sun, like others papers, sometimes has a "selective focus" of photos and stories on poor and black criminals, has shown black suspects in handcuffs while white suspects aren't in cuffs, displays articles more prominently for white victims from "good addresses" than for other victims and seems less than eager to uncover white drug use in the suburbs.

We're here to publish the news, which can't be decided by arithmetical measurements, but we worry about being fair and informative. We have a duty to help protect citizens and to fight crime. We also have a duty to help avoid or reduce racial tensions.

Editors should periodically review their crime coverage, an emotional area often requiring a case-by-case approach yet needing guidelines. Kathryn A. Christensen, managing editor, said The Sun and The Evening Sun have guidelines. She said these are being reviewed to make sure they are being followed and understood.

Our left hand sometimes doesn't work with our right hand. Inherent in putting out a newspaper with constant deadlines is that we make mistakes, often because we're careless or sloppy or ignore threads of good sense. Some readers think the threads unravel because we're racist or we're protecting a race, neither of which I think is true.

Here are some recent reader questions and my answers about crime coverage:

Question: Why is race sometimes included in crime stories, sometimes not?

Answer: Sometimes it's germane (for instance, part of a full description of a missing suspect, or when racial animosity is reported as a motive). Sometimes it isn't (when a suspect has been arrested and race is not relevant to the story). Sometimes we're inconsistent; recently The Sun reported only that missing suspects were "two black men" or in another case, described someone only by age and clothing.

When suspects are being sought, The Sun should try to print full descriptions: sex, approximate age, race, height, weight, clothing, distinguishing signs. It doesn't print this in full stories sometimes either because the facts are not available or because The Sun doesn't try hard enough to get them. I think The Sun should avoid race in these descriptions if other descriptive material isn't available.

Q: The Sun gave an almost complete description, but not his race, of the killer of a black Calverton School cleaning woman Oct. 31. The assailant was not captured. Why wasn't his race mentioned? Why was the story put inside the Maryland Section?

A: The assailant's race should have been mentioned and was included in a story the next day. The story deserved more important play, Page 1A or Maryland front page. A follow-up story Nov. 3 was on the front page of the Maryland section.

Q: Why does The Sun publish photos of suspects after they are captured?

A: Sometimes it is felt there is a compelling reason of "general public interest", such as heinous crimes or crimes that affect the public welfare. Another reason stems from the fact that publication of some suspects' photos have shown them to be possible repeat offenders. A rape victim told me her attacker was brought to justice because his photo as a suspect was printed in the paper in connection with another case.

We should be more careful about showing people actually under arrest; the image of someone in handcuffs equals "guilty" to most. When photos are thought to be needed, photos of faces are better than full body arrest photos in most cases.

Q: Why did The Sun recently note in first paragraph and headline that a shot Baltimore shopkeeper, often held up, was "Korean"? There was nothing more in the story about that.

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