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.