A man breaks into a house
One evening, after dinner out, a homeowner returns to the house to discover a burglar on the premises. The burglar dashes out, and the homeowner, understandably startled, catches only a glimpse of him. The police report describes the burglar as “a black male in his 20s.” No further details are available. When the crime is reported in The Sun, no description is given.
The Sun’s guidelines on writing and editing say this:
Providing a crime suspect's description is a public service. These descriptions, when possible, should strive to obtain all of the elements listed below. (When you cannot obtain all elements, tell readers as thoroughly as possible why a complete description could not be obtained. For example, did witnesses give police conflicting accounts? Was the victim unable to describe the suspect because of the suspect's methods?). Sketchy descriptions such as “white male” or “black teen-ager” that are not helpful in identifying anyone should be avoided.
As complete a description of clothing as possible.
Additional details of complexion; hair and eye color; and identifying
marks such as scars and tattoos, to set the suspect apart from others of the same sex and race.
The “public service” that the guidelines entry mentions is assistance in identifying and apprehending the culprit. A description such as “a black male in his 20s” is of no help in identifying a suspect. In fact, such a description could impede investigation if police were deluged with calls about the scores of people who could fit such a description.
That particular description, “a black male in his 20s,” might also reinforce the sentiments of people who fear and dislike African-Americans, and those people do not require additional stimulus from the newspaper.
It is odious to speculate on people’s motives, but it is also difficult to avoid the impression that some such fear and dislike may be behind the denunciations that poured in over an article about the rape of an 88-year-old woman and the blog posts here about the issues of identifying race in crime stories:
So let me point out, once more, that the day after the initial article on the crime was published, The Sun published a follow-up article with the police sketch of the criminal. If you have been listening to crank theories that The Sun conspires to conceal crimes committed by African-Americans, read the explanation here, and think about that picture.