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How Relevant Is a Suspect's Race?

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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

News Media, Public, Cops Not Always in Synch

LeBron Announcement Deal Raises Ethics Questions

Yahoo Introduces an All-White News Team

CNN Ousts Mideast Editor After She Praises Cleric

Spy Suspects Could Be Swapped for Russians

"Minority" No More, but Still a Chance to Give Back

CNN's Alex Castellanos Returns $12,000 From RNC

All Interracial Violence Isn't a "Hate Crime"

Short Takes


Tiffany Goldman was raped and her fiance Brad Evans pistol-whipped last month when, they said, three African American men in their 20s climbed through a second-story window in their Des Moines home. The couple described the attack in this Des Moines Register video. (video)

News Media, Public, Cops Not Always in Synch

Tiffany Goldman, a 21-year-old woman in Des Moines, Iowa, was brutally raped and her boyfriend pistol-whipped last month by three men who also stole their belongings.

Gilbert Cranberg, a longtime editorial page editor at the Des Moines Register who retired in the early 1980s, criticized his former paper for not mentioning that the men were black. "When fugitives are at large, it's undeniably useful to know a person's color in narrowing the field of suspects," he wrote June 22 on the Nieman Watchdog site.


A Des Moines Register video of the victimized couple does show the fiance, Brad Evans, eventually describing his tormenters as "African American."

More important: A spokeswoman for the Des Moines Police Department says police actually have more detail than the description of "three black males" that Cranberg said should be published - but that even the added detail is "way too broad" to be helpful.

That real-world assessment from Sgt. Lori Lavorato flies in the face of some viewers, readers and even journalists who maintain that publishing racial descriptions of suspects, however vague, helps in their apprehension.

"We don't identify someone's race unless we have other identifying information as well," Register Editor Carolyn Washburn told Journal-isms on Wednesday. "In this case, we only knew at the beginning that the suspects were black men. That vague description would only serve to make all black men suspects and would not help narrow the search. We waited until we had slightly more detail a few days later, but even then there wasn't much description.

"I thought that approach was still pretty typical across news organizations. Has that changed?"

It depends. One can still hear suspects racially identified in the broadcast media and in smaller-circulation print publications. It's a perennial topic for public editors who hear from readers accusing their news organizations of being "politically correct" by omitting race. It was only five years ago that Michael Getler, ombudsman for the Washington Post - now at PBS - wrote, "There is something about withholding information that the police make public that is troubling in a case such as this. It seems to me that the chance that it may be helpful is what's important and that people will understand that."

Here are the police descriptions of the Des Moines suspects, all "black males, about 20 to 23," Lavorato said.

Suspect One: Wearing braids, in possession of a .32 semi-automatic, a black shirt, red bandana, 6'3", 150 pounds, black hair, unknown eye color. Second suspect: Approximately 23 years old, black shirt, black do-rag, black bandana, .22 caliber rifle with a pistol grip; 6'1", unknown hair color and eye color. Third: Wore all black clothes, a black bandana, carrying a handgun, about 23 years old, 6 feet, 180 pounds, unknown hair and eye color.

"We haven't had any good information" from the public since those descriptions were released, Lavorato said. "In general, this is way too broad. . . . This information isn't going to help."

Many news organizations have policies such as this, at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

"We do not identify an individual by race unless the information is clearly relevant. In crime stories in which authorities seek a fugitive, a racial designation is included as part of a very detailed description that provides enough information to aid in the capture of a suspect. We should take the position that designating a person as white or black, or some other racial classification, does not provide information, necessarily, on what the person looks like. A person's complexion, facial features, distinguishing marks may all be part of a detailed description. The same theory holds for unidentified bodies in a police investigation. We do not identify them as black or white, or any other racial classification, unless it is part of a detailed description."

Some factors to consider:

  • How specific is the police description?
  • Bill Ketter, who was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1995-96 and later edited the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune, told his staff, "Reporters should always press police for details that distinguish suspects from other persons of the same racial or ethnic group."

  • What does a "black male" or a Latino look like?

    Eleven years ago, Keith Woods, then of the Poynter Institute, wrote an essay, "The Language of Race," in which he said:

    "All racial and ethnic groups do share some common physical characteristics. Still, we don't see the phrase 'Irish-looking man' in the newspaper, though red hair and pale skin are common Irish characteristics. Would a picture come to mind if a TV anchor said, 'The suspect appeared to be Italian'? Couldn't many of us conjure an image if the police said they were looking for a middle-aged man described as 'Jewish-looking'?

    "There are good reasons those descriptions never see the light of day. They generalize. They stereotype. And they require that everyone who hears the description has the same idea of what those folks look like. All Irish-Americans don't look alike. Why, then, accept a description that says a suspect was African-American?'" 

  • What are the chances that the constant repetition of suspect descriptions as "black male" or "Hispanic male" will lead readers and viewers to view all members of that group in that way?

    Who can forget the cases of whites who performed crimes and, to deflect suspicion, lied and said a black or Hispanic person did the deed?

  • How good are eyewitness identifications, anyway?

    "Over 175 people have been wrongfully convicted based, in part, on eyewitness misidentification and later proven innocent through DNA testing," the Innocence Project reported last year. "The total number of wrongful convictions involving eyewitness misidentifications exceeds this figure, given the widespread use of eyewitness testimony and the limited number of cases in which DNA evidence is available for post-conviction testing."

As the psychiatrist Steve Rubenezer wrote on the subject of wrongful identifications, "Expectations influence what people see - or think they see."

Sources told ESPN's Chris Broussard that representatives for LeBron James contacted ESPN, proposing that James make his announcement during a special Thursday at 9 p.m. ET. The sources proved right. James will announce his plans within the first 10 minutes, ESPN said. (Video)

LeBron Announcement Deal Raises Ethics Questions

"Did ESPN just get 'mediajacked'?" Brian Steinberg asked Wednesday on

"Normally, an event as important and interesting as basketball wunderkind LeBron James announcing what team he has chosen to play for would be a national, even global, event — with coverage supplied by hundreds of different media outlets.

"Come Thursday, in prime time no less, ESPN gets the exclusive. But to do it, the Disney sports network appears to have sacrificed revenue — and even some journalistic control by letting Mr. James choose one of his interviewers — in exchange for the ratings and buzz the event is likely to provide.

"Commercial revenue from the special program — which is being called 'The Decision' — will be donated to Boys & Girls [Clubs] of America, a charity that ESPN and Disney also support. The ESPN show will be 'co-presented' by the University of Phoenix and Microsoft's Bing search engine, with Coca-Cola's VitaminWater and McDonald's also lending a sponsorship hand. Nike and Coca-Cola's Sprite are also making contributions, a fact one might theorize could come to light during the airing of Mr. James' special.

"The only commercial time in the hour-long special not featuring Mr. James's sponsors is the local time designated to cable and satellite operators, said Norby Williamson, ESPN's exec VP-production. Mr. James' representatives approached the network with the idea, he said.

"ESPN said the deal was not equivalent to paying the athlete for the scoop.

" 'Times change and needs change and people's desires change and other parameters are put on things,' said Mr. Williamson, but ESPN seems to think the 'unique' arrangement works both from a business and editorial standpoint. 'We ultimately had a decision to make. This event could have ended up on the internet. It could have ended up on another network. This event was going to end up somewhere, so we had a decision to make as a corporation and a news entity. Are we comfortable with the parameters that have been laid out?' "

Yahoo Introduces an All-White News Team

Andrew GolisAndrew Golis, who has been planning an original content news site for Yahoo, the most-visited news site on the Web, on Tuesday introduced an apparently all-white team of editors and reporters for the newly renamed "the Upshot."

[Update: While "the Upshot's" team is monochromatic, Yahoo's vice president of news and information, Mark Walker, is African American, Journal-isms learned on Thursday.

[Walker, a 1986 Stanford Law School graduate with degrees in mechanical engineering, described himself this way on his LinkedIn profile:

["Internet media executive with more than 15 years of global experience across a broad range of media and technologies within the entertainment industry. A highly effective deal initiator, expediter and closer; an expert in achieving bottom-line efficiencies through streamlining internal operating and business processes; and an articulate advocate of business interests in government, public and industry forums. An outstanding record of excellent presentation, negotiation, and team-building skills."]

Golis is 26-year-old former deputy publisher of Talking Points Memo, according to a May profile on His official title is editor of blogging for Yahoo! News.

His team includes Chris Lehmann, deputy editor; Holly Bailey, senior political reporter; John Cook, senior national affairs reporter; Michael Calderone, media reporter; Brett Michael Dykes, national affairs reporter; Liz Goodwin, national affairs reporter; and Rachel Rose Hartman, political reporter.

When the American Society of News Editors decided to add "online-only newspapers" to its annual diversity census of print newspapers, Yahoo was one of the 21 that did not respond, ASNE said in April. "We do not release our diversity statistics," spokeswoman Carrie Davis told Journal-isms.

The Labor Department confirmed in May that Yahoo, Google and three other Silicon Valley companies felt so strongly about not disclosing the diversity information that they persuaded federal officials two years ago to block public disclosure — and that the Labor Department agreed that to be forthcoming would be revealing "trade secrets."

"Our goal is to be blunt narrators of the day's news, to cut through the noise and misinformation and get to the heart of what's important and why," Golis told readers.

CNN Ousts Mideast Editor After She Praises Cleric

Octavia Nasr"CNN on Wednesday removed its senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs, Octavia Nasr, from her job after she published a Twitter message saying that she respected the Shiite cleric the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who died on Sunday," Brian Stelter reported for the New York Times.

The message said, "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot.. " Alex Weprin wrote for TVNewser.

Stelter's story continued, "Ms. Nasr left her CNN office in Atlanta on Wednesday. Parisa Khosravi, the senior vice president for CNN International Newsgathering, said in an internal memorandum that she 'had a conversation' with Ms. Nasr on Wednesday morning and that 'we have decided that she will be leaving the company.' "

"In a follow-up blog post on Tuesday evening, Ms. Nasr said she was sorry about the message 'because it conveyed that I supported Fadlallah’s life’s work. That’s not the case at all.'

"She said she used the words 'respect' and 'sad' because 'to me, as a Middle Eastern woman, Fadlallah took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman’s rights. He called for the abolition of the tribal system of "honor killing." He called the practice primitive and nonproductive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam.'

"She continued, 'This does not mean I respected him for what else he did or said. Far from it.' . . .

"Despite her senior editor title, Ms. Nasr did not run CNN’s Middle East coverage, a network spokesman said. She reported and provided analysis about the region for CNN/U.S., CNN International and"

Spy Suspects Could Be Swapped for Russians

"A prisoner swap is being planned to bring 10 suspected Russian spies back from the US, say Russian reports," the BBC reported on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday that the U.S. government plans to appeal a New York judge's decision to allow suspect Vicky Pelaez, activist and columnist for the New York Spanish-language El Diario newspaper, to be released on bail, the Associated Press reported.

"Pelaez is among 11 defendants charged with being part of a spy ring that prosecutors say for the past decade has engaged in secret global travel with false passports, secret code words, fake names, invisible ink and encrypted radio," AP said.

"The government has opposed the release on bail of any of the defendants, saying they would flee if they had the opportunity."

The BBC said neither Russian nor U.S. authorities have commented on reports of the swap.

"Igor Sutyagin, a man jailed in Russia for spying for the CIA, said he and unspecified others would be exchanged, his family said," the BBC reported.

"Minority" No More, but Still a Chance to Give Back

Tyree Harris"When people think of giving back to the community, they think sandwich lines, clean-up service, and financial charity," Tyree Harris, opinion editor at the Oregon Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon, wrote in his paper on Tuesday.

"Though all of these are great and important, there is no better way to give back to your community than with the very talents you are practicing for your career.

"Give back with what you do best.

"I spent my first week of summer at the Oregon State University campus being journalistically revived by 24 bright-eyed, teenaged writers. For the past three years, I’ve dedicated June 19th through the 27th to the High School Journalism Institute, a joint effort between the Oregonian and Oregon State to promote newsroom diversity. It is, without question, the most cultural journalistic experience possible in Oregon — students in the program are all from underrepresented backgrounds."

The students created a 40-page tabloid featuring the reporting, editing, photography and design of camp participants.

Oregon State and the Oregonian this year removed the word "Minority" from the name of the program, formerly the Newspaper Institute for Minority High School Students, after an objection from a listener to conservative talk-show host Lars Larson.

"One of Larson's listeners correctly pointed out to Larson earlier this year that the name and positioning of the summer program might be at odds with OSU's non-discrimination policy," Todd Simmons, interim vice president, university advancement, told Journal-isms.

"When Larson shared that observation with us via e-mail, our attorneys, who had not previously looked at the program, realized quickly that there were, in fact, problems. Though this happened fairly late in our process for hosting the camp (we were already accepting applications, for instance), the university and the Oregonian pulled together quickly to make some small but necessary adjustments to the program's name and application/selection criteria. Thanks to the dedication of the university and Oregonian individuals involved, we didn't have to cancel the camp, but instead broadened criteria to embrace applicants with disabilities, applicants who come from low-income families or families with a low history of educational attainment and students with a linguistic or cultural background different from Oregon's dominant culture.

"It’s an amazing thing to witness."

CNN's Alex Castellanos Returns $12,000 From RNC

"CNN contributor Alex Castellanos has returned $12,000 that had been paid to him by the Republican National Committee -- a payment which violates CNN's policy against paid contributors receiving money from political committees," Chris Ariens reported for TV Newser on Tuesday.

 "Castellanos told Media Matters he was unaware of the payment and returned when he 'found out.'

" 'I was not aware of the payment because ours is a large business and an employee who handles and processes payments for me dealt with the RNC transaction,' Castellanos said. 'CNN's preference and policy is that I don't work for the RNC or political candidates.'

According to a November piece on the ThinkProgess website, Castellanos "fashions himself as the 'father of the modern attack ad.' Castellanos is no stranger to the RNC, having received four payments totaling $434,336 from them for media work since July. Castellanos has also been a key player in the effort to stop health care reform."

Donna Brazile, another CNN talking head, is a member of the Democratic National Committee, but CNN spokeswoman Edie Emery told Journal-isms that is an unpaid position.

All Interracial Violence Isn't a "Hate Crime"

Mike Vinson, a columnist for the Murfreesboro (Tenn.) Post, Sunday used the horrific 2007 kidnap and torture of a Knoxville, Tenn., couple by four black men to make the point that, "To the best of my knowledge — and anyone feel free to correct me if I’m wrong — not one primetime media source has ever publicly referred to this repulsively inhumane incident as a 'hate crime.' "

There's a good reason for that, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, told Journal-isms. "There's no evidence it was committed on the basis of race. The Knoxville tragedy has been utterly exploited by white supremacists who have tried to turn it into something it never was, a racial hate crime."

Potok cited a 2005 Justice Department study on hate crimes that showed 6,000 to 11,000 hate crimes per year, though he said the figure is actually much higher. Hate crimes affected 0.9 non-Hispanic whites per 1,000, 0.7 non-Hispanic blacks and 0.9 percent Hispanics per 1,000, he said -- all about the same ratio.

Short Takes

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Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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Race, Crime and News

Barry Glassner's book "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things" is an excellent treatise on how news (especially TV) reinforces false impressions about crime and race which journalists can make good use of to improve their focus.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Yahoo News

I too noticed (with surprise and disappointment) that the new Yahoo News team appears to be completely caucasian. I say "appears" because you can't always definitively judge racial background in a photo and perhaps someone on board is biracial. It's true that there's more to Diversity than skin color and perhaps this team offers political, religious, sexual, gender, economic or geographic diversity - a diversity of experience and perspectives. But in 2010, it seems that every (national) news organization would want their teams to reflect the rainbow that is America.

Julie Drizin

News Media, Public, Cops Not Always in Synch

This story is testament to how deluded and illogical the politcally-correct person can be.  No one would report that a suspect looked like an Irish-American.  They would simply write a "White male with Red hair" if that's what the supect looked like.  That is no different than writing a "Black male with Black braided hair".

If race is not relevant, why is there a race/ethnicity box on all police forms usually right after the name and address fields?

If a car were involved in a hit and run, would you only mention the color of the car if you knew the make and model as well?

The point is any and ALL information is valuable.  Concealing a suspects race from readers/viewers based on PC reasons is not only ridiculous, it's dangerous.  Any journalist who does this should have their heads checked and find a new profession as they are self-destructive and haven't an ounce of integrity.



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