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."