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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.

Why?

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.

 Sex.
 Race.
 Age.
 Height.
 Weight.
 Build.
 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:

http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/2007/08/race_and_crime.html

http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/2007/08/vent_your_spleen_here.html

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.

MD%20RAPE03.JPG

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:31 PM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

In fact, the 'suspect' looks more like a candidate for Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. Whoever he is,he looks extremely waxen. I like the startled look.

Well, that sketch certainly puts a new twist on "some black guy did it."

All units be on the lookout for a dark-skinned Hispanic Vietnamese Welsh Filipino Ukrainian Japanese-looking dude. Caution: He is considered armed and dangerous and may appear black and/or Hungarian in certain lighting conditions. That is all.

Wow. With all your marmish hand wringing over what facts go into an article, you don't even try to hide your Holy Disposition toward helping all us Sun readers to a heaping spoonful of How-To-Think: "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." How about this? Drop the amorphous, insulting social agenda and report the facts. Many of the violent crimes in our town are committed by young black males. You are not somehow mending the world by these omissions (I recall the criminals' race was left out of an otherwise brillant article on the Sowers beating a few Sundays ago); you are leaving readers with questions. Do you propose that I should feel some sort of overriding guilt, when after I read an article, I find myself asking, "Was the perpitrator white or black?" Please advise.

Do you propose that I should feel some sort of overriding guilt, when after I read an article, I find myself asking, "Was the perpitrator white or black?" Please advise.

You should feel no guilt...

Except in one instance:

You are one of those folks who assert often, and sometimes belligerently, that you are not a racist.

If that's the case: flog yourself with the whip of guilt until you faint.

"..those people do not require additional stimulus..."
"...You are one of those folks..."
Hmm. Do I sense a pattern here?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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