By Michael McGough
At the risk of being accused of having an obsession with references to race and ethnicity in journalism, I want to call attention to a controversy over the fact that some news reports identified James Holmes, the accused shooter in "The Dark Knight Rises" movie theater shootings, as a white man. (The L.A. Times story did not so describe him.)
This is from Richard Prince’s “Journalisms” feature on the website of the Maynard Institute:
"News consumers learned that the man suspected of shooting 70 people in Aurora, Colo., on Friday was white before they knew his name.
“NPR described the man accused of killing 12 people and injuring at least 58 others as a ‘white male in his early 20s.' On Pacifica Radio's 'Democracy Now,' host Amy Goodman said the gunman was 'believed to be white, about 24 years old....
“Paul Colford, spokesman for the Associated Press, explained to Journalisms at midday, 'I'm told that 'white' was part of the original police description, though that element will be dropped. Race is included when a story contains a racial element, and so far this one apparently has no such element.'"
It's true that most newspaper style guides counsel against identifying crime suspects -- and other people -- by their race, a practice dating to the 1960s. Before then, it was common for news stories to refer to a suspect, even after he had been captured, as a “Negro man.” The exception to the modern colorblind policy is when race is “relevant.”
That’s obviously the case in, say, the beating of Rodney King by white police officers or a description of a congressional candidate who is the first African American (or white, though that’s unlikely) to hold a political office. Race is also relevant when the suspect is still at large, though there have been instances of stories that tell the reader to look out for a suspect with “black hair and brown eyes" without mentioning race.
Beyond that, though, relevance is in the eye of the beholder, and readers often behold things differently from the way editors do.
To complicate matters, the same editors who would enforce a ban on racial descriptions in a crime story might nudge a reporter to make clear, indirectly, that the subject of a positive portrayal belongs to an underrepresented group.
Finally there’s the double standard for breaking news and feature stories: Physical description is at a minimum in breaking stories, but when a reporter is in feature mode, quasi-racial descriptions like “the blond, blue-eyed tot” or “the teenager in dreadlocks” come out of the tool kit.
In the case of the Colorado shootings, the arguments for identifying the shooter as white would be:
Readers/listeners are curious, just as they’re curious about whether the shooter was young or old or male or female. The problem with this argument is that for many readers that curiosity is tinged with a kind of prurient racism.
This is a story with anthropological/sociological overtones. One reason readers may have been curious about the race of the shooter was that the supposed rarity of nonwhite serial killers has been a topic of more or less informed discussion for years. ...
Is this racist? Racially insensitive? Or unobjectionably informative? You tell me.
My view is: Of course the race of the Colorado killer is relevant. It's news.
As a commenter points out, the first three facts that the police gather on a suspect are sex, race, and age: e.g., "A male Caucasian about 25." For the press to go and proactively delete race shows their dedication to keeping the public ignorant.
The news media should drop its campaign to control the flow of facts about race out of disdain for its readers' "prurient" curiosity. The press writes about race constantly, but it tries to massage readers' opinions on race, most obviously by trying to cover up the fact that, according to the Obama Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics website, the majority of homicides since 1976 have been committed by African-Americans.
To give an example from the same edition of the Los Angeles Times of how baldly the prestige press often covers up race:
July 23, 2012 | 10:31 pm
Los Angeles officials will be announcing a $50,000 reward for information in the slaying of a 38-year-old man shot outside a Hoagies & Wings in Sherman Oaks.
Raul Lopez, who worked as a cook at the restaurant, had pushed out a group of men who had become angry while waiting for food before he was shot June 29, police said.
Police said the men had shouted racial slurs at employees, causing other customers to leave and prompting Lopez to take action.
There is no mention in the rest of the posting about the race of the killers, who are seen on security video, even though that's doubly relevant, since it can help somebody collect the $50,000 reward by identifying them, and because the killers "shouted racial slurs." But withholding relevant information serves the higher purpose of thwarting prurient racists' curiosity by not validating stereotypes.
See, leaving the impression that this could be a killing by a gang of white racist no doubt Romney-supporting anti-Latino murderers roving Ventura Boulevard is a good thing. (This strategic ambiguity might, for example, help the SPLC get some more donations from confused old rich people in Sherman Oaks. And the SPLC needs the money.)
In contrast, the lowly Sherman Oaks Patch reports:
The five suspects are thought to be in their 20s or 30s, and lead homicide detective James Nuttall said Tuesday that the men, all African-American, were driving a newer model black Cadillac Escalade on 26-inch chrome rims.
Okay! That's useful, relevant news. It's also, like most crime stories, a stereotype-palooza.
Keep in mind that this reticence about race and crime doesn't have anything to do with preventing further violence. This L.A. Times columnist is proud of how the press hammered on the subject of race in the Rodney King beating, which eventuated in 53 people dead and a billion dollars in riot damage.