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Robber in a USC sweatshirt

March 25, 2008 | 11:03 am

Matt Swanson of Los Angeles sent this question about a March 19 story:

"It was chilling to read that two students were robbed at gunpoint recently while studying in USC classrooms. While you reported in detail what the suspects were wearing, for some reason you neglected to mention their race, which I think would be significant to know since the perpetrators are at large. Given the demographics of the area surrounding USC, I'm wondering if there is some policy at the L.A. Times that prevents identifying suspects' race."

Physical descriptions in the print version of the article included  references to "a man in a red-orange hooded sweatshirt" for the first armed robbery; in the second, the story described "a man ...wearing a black cloth mask as well as a red-hooded sweatshirt with a yellow Trojan emblem on the front."

The story concluded, "LAPD Deputy Chief Kenneth Garner said investigators believe the same person may be responsible, although there were discrepancies in the witness descriptions. One victim described the robber as 18 to 20. The other victim said he was between 20 and 30."

The earlier article, posted March 18 at latimes.com, included the information that had been eliminated from the print version:

"LAPD Deputy Chief Kenneth Garner said investigators believe the same person may be responsible for the robberies, although there were discrepancies in the witness descriptions. Both victims said the man who robbed them was black. One victim described the man who robbed him as 18 to 20 years old and about 5 feet 9 inches tall. The other victim said the robber was between 20 to 30 years old and about 6 feet tall."

Mark McGonigle, who oversees the California section copy desk, did not see the story before it was published. He thinks that it was a fine line as to whether the other identifying information should have been included, but ultimately says that it should have been.

McGonigle lays out the Times' policy, which gives examples of the type of article in which race or ethnicity is considered relevant:

Stories in which criminal suspects are being sought, and the physical description compiled by law enforcement is detailed enough to make it reasonable that a reader might be able to recognize the suspect. Specificity is critical: If descriptions are vague, they offer no value. Simply identifying a suspect as a “Latino in his 20s with a shaved head" is not acceptable. Additional physical characteristics, identifying marks such as earrings or tattoos, approximate age and clothing worn are details that warrant inclusion of a description in a story. Without at least some of these, leave the description out.

It is also unacceptable to describe a suspect in detail--for instance giving height, weight, clothing and hairstyle--and fail to mention his or her race or ethnicity. This gives the appearance that the newspaper is withholding information or that the reader is expected to know the race of the suspect.

The earliest versions of the story, which ran online, had included the robber's height as well as race. But there were discrepancies in the information give by the two victims. There also was difference in the the description of clothing and the estimates of the suspects' ages. As McGonigle says, "Because the descriptions given by the victims were not the same, I think the copy editor believed that there was not enough of a physical description to meet the standard of our policy. However, in this case, I think we should have left the height and the race in the article. "

In other words, because the print version allowed the varying ages to be given -- one victim said 18 to 20, and the other said 20 to 30 -- and because the varying clothing descriptions were given, McGonigle believes the descriptions should have included other physical aspects -- including race.

David Lauter, editor of the California section, agrees:

"I agree with the general policy that if race is pretty much the only thing we know, then reporting it, alone, is not of much use to anyone. 'Police say they are looking for a black man,' is not helpful in a region as populous as southern California. But that wasn't the circumstance here. The problem of conflicting descriptions could have been cured by saying 'witness descriptions varied, with one describing the robber as being between 18 and 20 and the other putting his age at 20 to 30' then going on to give the rest of the description, including the varying estimates of height and the suspect's race. Witness descriptions often vary. That shouldn't be a reason not to inform readers of whatever useful information we do have."

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