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Race and crime

The Sun ran an article last week about the rape of an 88-year-old woman that included this description of the assailant: "between the ages of 20 and 30, about 6 feet tall and with a slim build. He was wearing a gray shirt and tan or khaki pants." Our reader editor, Paul Moore, is still getting complaints from readers that we omitted to include any description of the assailant’s race.

Well, we did, or rather the original draft of the article did describe the assailant as black, and the copy desk deleted the racial identification.

The reason is that our editing guidelines say that we identify someone’s race in articles when it is clearly relevant — and particularly in crime stories, when it is part of a complete description that would assist in identifying the perpetrator.

My own view — not meaning to steal Mr. Moore’s thunder, should he address this — is that we should have run all or nothing, and my preference is for nothing. The copy editor in omitting the racial identification did not go far enough. The entire description should have been deleted from the article. Omitting the racial detail alone invites the reader to default to the assumption that the assailant was white. And the remaining details potentially point to too many people to be useful.

A slim 6-foot-tall man, between 20 and 30, wearing a gray shirt and khakis, could be any one of thousands of men in the Baltimore area. Specify that he is African-American or white or Hispanic or Asian, and you have still not narrowed the field by much. If the police report had described a tattoo, or a limp, or a scar, or a piece of jewelry, or some other distinctive detail or details, the description could have had some potential usefulness in apprehending the assailant.

Otherwise, the effect of publishing the available details, including race, would have had no more effect than to make white residents suspicious of black men, and that suspicion, this being America, is already there.

The community’s disgust at this ugly crime is understandable, and everyone, including the staff of The Sun, wishes to see the criminal arrested and tried. That is why we publish descriptive details when they offer a chance of helping to bring a criminal to justice. That is why we omit them when they serve no useful purpose.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:33 AM | | Comments (16)


Your comment, "Otherwise, the effect of publishing the available details, including race, would have had no more effect than to make white residents suspicious of black men, and that suspicion, this being America, is already there.".... is a stereotype of white people and of America. Many white people support diversity of different races and cultures. In fact, it is white people that keep the cultures of different races alive in many different ways, particulary the black culture. If black males put people of any color in suspicion, it is sometimes warranted. I personally have tried to treat each person no matter what color as an individual, but from my experience I have found that black males in particular are quick to jump to judgement about me based on what newspapers like yours portray us as. I have had differences of opinions with black males where I was the recipent of racial slurs often and was threatened with violence and never once did I make a racial comment to these individuals. The myth that white people get all the breaks makes it tuff for us who have truly struggled, but in spite of what is said about us we keep looking forward and trying to improve ourselves. I have never in my life blamed anyone for where I am. I deserve to be in a better situation than where I'm at (I'm a janitor) but because of circumstances beyond my control, at 50 years old I still struggle. Did I do all I could to help myself? I thought I did but I guess I could have done some things differently. But I didn't blame other people even though I could have. I was a young adult coming of age when a lot of anti-discrimination laws were put into effect. I was raised in a poor white family that lived on welfare my entire childhood. There was no nuturing environment and I wasn't prepared for life when I was told to leave at the age of 17. I learned a lot of things the hard way but I always had an excellent work ethic. I would work my butt off and watch while some folks aound me (who did very little) would move up the ladder. Those folks would be white people who knew someone in the business or someone popular and other times people of all colors (including blacks) who were no better and often worst than me in ability to do the job. But I never complained. I would just work as hard as I could and hope that one day it would pay off. Now as I'm getting older a new type of discrimination haunts me. Age discrimination. I've resigned myself to the fact that I will not retire until I'm physically unable to work. I know I'm not alone. Again, I can accept this as this is the way life is. It is hard though when you're stereotyped as just because I'm white that everything was easy. I can assure you that I don't recall one time in my life anything of a positive nature happening to me because I was white. I know that my letter may seem like a bunch of rambling on but for me to go into the nuances of my life would fill pages and pages. It's not my intent to whine about my life but just to make you aware that a lot of people struggle everyday and are exhausted when they get home and wonder how long they can continue to do it. But they pick themselves back up with no malice in their hearts or thoughts and just do what needs to be done. These are the silent majority that keeps our country going. I repsect what you do and I agree with much of your explanation concerning this article. I only wish that I am afforded the same respect that the criminal (no matter what color) in which your explanation refers to. I'm available to talk anytime concerning this or any issues. It's nice to get things off your chest. By the way, I'm an independent and have been since high school. Briefly before that I was a democrat. Thanks for your time.


I hope this feeble explanation helps you sleep at night. I guess the Sun likes to think they are stamping out racism by not reporting all the facts. What about the prejudice against people that wear khaki pants? Do you really believe you are saving the world?

Show some fortitude, report all the facts. Stop worrying about the next activist who is going to cry foul and stand behind the facts. You just may find out that by focusing on the facts objectively, may equate to selling more toothpaste.

You are not a journalist.

You are a pandering, mincing, weak-minded ninny who is obviously too ignorant to be employed by any legitimate "news" service.


JEM: I do not mince.

"A slim 6-foot-tall man, between 20 and 30, wearing a gray shirt and khakis, could be any one of thousands of men in the Baltimore area. Specify that he is African-American or white or Hispanic or Asian, and you have still not narrowed the field by much."

If you have a violent aquaintance who matches the description and was known to be in the area at the time in question it could well be enough. If you got a good look at someone leaving the area but didn't see a crime so didn't report it, the description could well be enough. Stop making excuses to not report the facts.

Thank you for highlighting a problem that's occurring throughout the country. Not naming race is an attempt by some to throw the wool over the American people’s eyes and completely disgusts me. The news double standard is so blatantly ridiculous that I find it hard most of the time to even call it news. Multiculturalists propaganda.

Mr. McIntyre is quite right. He does not mince. Although he occasionally manifests characteristics of ninnyhood - and who among us, including that writer, does not? - he is not, as I recall, a panderer or weak-minded. On balance, I would suggest the writer offered nothing useful, save an alarming lack of imagination and language.

Report the description in the police blotter for people who want to try to solve the crime. Use the article to describe the details of what happened and when.

Actually...if the specific description was of a "six foot Asian" rapist running loose in Baltimore, it may have narrowed the field considerably.

One additional point merits attention. The day after the original article on the rape, when a police sketch became available, we published it. How that squares with some imagined conspiracy to shield criminals I leave it to the reader to determine.

Why not just kill the paragraph containing a textual description and run the police sketch?

"One picture worth thousand words."

JEM: An excellent suggestion, but we didn't have the police sktech until the day after the first article.

I'm of two minds on this issue, though, with any luck, neither of them weak.

A simple racial identification can pose a threat to other people even remotely resembling the description. All you have to do is ask black men how many times they've been stopped, hassled by police, eyed suspiciously or even directly threatened. That is indisputable.

And I have always believed that newspapers should be extremely careful. I remember well a particularly heinous string of crimes where the perpetrator was repeatedly described as Hispanic. The guy ultimately arrested and convicted was Greek.

That said, if the police in my neighborhood started describing a burglar as such- and-such height, white and brown-haired, you can bet I'd be extra vigilant if I saw someone even remotely matching that description. More information is good.

The black guy walking down the street would not merit that extra look. But clothing descriptions always strike me as fairly stupid unless the outfit is really unusual.

So the issue is not clear cut, to my way of thinking but denying the reality of the impact of racial identification and hence stereotyping doesn't make it less true.

Mr. McIntyre: Your segment discussing this aspect of the reporting of this case was going about where I suspected it would until I read this sentence-

"Omitting the racial detail alone invites the reader to default to the assumption that the assailant was white. "

Huh? Please explain how you came to this conclusion.

The local TV news, and to a lesser extent, the Sun, appear to shy away from identifying the race of crime suspects if they are black.

I can't count how many news stories on TV mention the criminals name, rap sheet, etc. but don't post a picture. They show artsy film of the crime scene and bullet points of what the newsreader is saying (talk about insulting the audience!), but can't come up with a mug shot of a multi-convicted felon.

When I see that, I smell a rat. I suspect the big shots in the media have an unwritten rule, namely, "Most people suspect that blacks commit crimes far out of proportion to their percentage of population. Although that is true, don't give the sheeple confirmation of that. Don't run a picture. Maybe they'll forget".

P.S. I'd like to thank Ron Smith of WBAL for turning me on to your blog. Gone are the days when my only recourse was to hurl the paper across the room. Now I can train my fire where it might do some good!

JEM: Always happy to meet a reader's needs.

Mr McIntyre,

It would be nice to hear Mr. Moore's point of view on this subject considering you deferred to him in the fourth paragraph.

However, please explain how listing a suspect's race would not be beneficial to helping the public potentially identify that suspect. For exapmle, let's take a community of 3,000,000 people half of which are men. Without listing any particular race, let's say Race A comprises 65% of the population, Race B comprises 25%, Race C is 7% and Race D is 3%. If a crime is committed and the victim or witness(es) describe the suspect as being of Race C with a high level of certainty, the public would be on the watch for approximately 105,000 people (high end estimate). Adding in the other factors of a slim build and his height, the population further narrows. I would appreciate your rebuttal as to why this would not benefit the public. Thanks.

First: The Sun's disregard for its duties to its readers is astounding. How on earth can you possibly believe the color of the shirt a person is wearing is a more appropriate description than the color of their skin?

And then, the response that "it should have been all or nothing" said volumes about the standards of this paper. Rather than publishing a description accurately describing the accused, an EDITOR of the Sun actually suggestion not running a description at all.

As a member of the fourth estate, the Sun has an obligation to report the facts and serve its readers. By not doing so, it has not created a color blind world, nor did it give those of us in the area of the attack any useful information to help protect ourselves. A failure on both counts.

Secondly, Webster's defines "mince" as "to lessen the force of; weaken.. to cut up or chop up" so -- while you might not "mince," the Sun certainly does when it comes to information they decide isn't important enough for readers.

For all your marmish reasoning about what goes into an article, you sure don't try to hide the fact that you're pre-disposed toward feeding all us dumb Sun readers a healthy 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." I want the facts of a crime, not your selection of details that will further some amorphous sociological agenda. In Baltimore, many violent crimes are committed by young black males. You don't change that by omission; in fact, you--article by article--make the quiet, modern division between blacks and whites even deeper.

I give my sincerest thanks to The Sun, Mr. Moore and Mr. McIntyre for having this correct policy, for implementing it and for standing behind it. It is a model to be followed by journalists who haven’t yet adopted it. Mr. McIntyre, the outline of the policy and the reasoning behind it that you have provided are specifically appreciated.

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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
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