Readers' Representative Journal

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Racial identification: descriptions in full

August 26, 2008 |  5:34 pm

Thursday's report in The Times on a series of armed robberies along Melrose Avenue said, "All three of the robbers have been described as men in their early to late 20s, ranging from 5 feet 6 to 6 feet tall and weighing 150 to 200 pounds."

At least a dozen readers sent a question along the lines of what reader Howard Douglas asked: "Why tell us the gender, age, height and weight of the suspects without telling us their ethnicity? Perhaps writers for The Times are forbidden from giving complete descriptions of suspects. I've reported crimes to the police, and one the first questions is, 'Was he white, black, hispanic or Asian?' Is The Times afraid to repeat that information? Sounds a bit wimpy to me. In the future, give us the whole description or none of it. Example: 'Some people robbed a bank today...' "

That, more or less, is actually how it's supposed to work. The information was originally included by reporter Andrew Blankstein, who had the handout from the local police and the group Melrose Action Neighborhood Watch. It said, "All three suspects have been described as African American males ranging in height of 5'6" - 6'0" tall, 150 –200 pounds – in their early to late 20s."

Says senior copy chief Mark McGonigle, "This was caused by a misunderstanding of our policy on using racial identification. The copy editor took out the racial description supplied by the reporter, thinking that there were not enough other descriptive elements to leave it in. In fact, the policy states that it's all or nothing: Either there's enough information to make for a meaningful description, which should include race, or there's not enough of a description and all the elements of the description should be taken out of the story. I've talked to the copy editor and slot on the story to make sure they understand the policy."

At the other extreme, unfortunately, was the brief in Saturday's paper, which said the suspects were "all described as black and in their late teens to early 20s." (The online version of that article, posted Friday, when one more robbery added up to eight for the area, described the suspects only as "three young men," though unarmed.)

Says McGonigle, "In that one, we needed to have at least the height and weight descriptions or we should have taken out the description of the robbers altogether."

He went on to refer to the guidelines editors are supposed to use, adding, "Because there are three robbers involved, I think that, along with race, age, and height and weight ranges, may give a specific enough description. But I don't think the information in the brief met the standard."

The guidelines state, in part:

The Times identifies people by their race or ethnicity when it is relevant.... [For example, in] 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.

(A similar situation was reviewed in a post on this journal in March.)

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