Thursday, August 10, 2006

Coloring Inside the Lines

My friend Suzanne wasted no time in her San Francisco newsroom blog, diving right into the one issue guaranteed to start an argument in every newsroom: Should you print the race of at-large criminal suspects?

Her example is a classic that opens the door to the principal arguments on both sides. A woman tells police she was walking near Golden Gate Park and a stranger "dragged her from the sidewalk and raped her." She gave police a description, but they could not find the suspect.

Suzanne, as an editor, writes:

This morning, I asked my early reporter to check in with police and see if they had a suspect description. They did, and the reporter recited the description at the beginning of this entry.

I took the suspect's description to a higher editor and asked his opinion: Was it detailed enough to include the race the suspect was believed to be? Coupled with the detail of where this man had been (22nd and Fulton at 3:15 p.m.), we agreed that race was a useful detail.

Here's what I posted on the Gate today:

San Francisco police are looking for a Latino man in his mid-20s with a thin mustache and who is about 5-foot-9 in connection with a sexual assault that occurred Sunday afternoon in Golden Gate Park.

The victim told police she had been walking near 22nd Avenue and Fulton Street around 3:15 p.m. when the man grabbed her, dragged her into some bushes and assaulted her before fleeing.

Police ask that anyone with information about the suspect to call the department's confidential tip line at (415) 575-4444.

This ignited a debate among several of us here at The Chronicle as to whether the second post followed our style when it comes to indicating race. Click "Read more" for the full policy, but basically, it says we include race in a description only when we have enough detail for it to be useful to people. Otherwise, we're just fueling stereotypes.

Well, the flaw there is pretty obvious. "enough detail to be useful" is a subjective measurement that will vary from person to person, and it is presumptuous of any media to decide for you what you need to know when you're at some sort of risk (say you were a young woman in that part of the city). Especially when the media is weighing your personal safety against the editor's need to feel he or she is righting some historical societal class injustice.

On the other hand -- and many of her commenters make these points elopquently -- racial descriptions like "Latino" really don't conjur up much in terms of specific visuals. I've known Castilliano Cuban exiles who were as blonde and fair as Paris Hilton. Other Cubans are as black as Africans.

"Latino," in other words, is not a physical description so much as an ethnic identity. It's possible the woman confused an Italian or Greek or North African man for a Latino. It's possible she meant "swarthy," but no reporter who wanted to have a job tomorrow would use that word today, even if it's the right one.

As one of her commenters says, "It would be great if victims were handed a color wheel of skin tones and asked to describe the suspect's skin by pointing at the wheel." But then the readers would have to have access to the same wheel for it to be of any use.

Even when you deal in race -- black, white -- you have to remember that, in America, this is largely an artificial and subjective construction. A great many icons of "black culture" -- from Frederick Douglass to Bob Marley -- were at least half "white." Two words: Michael Jackson.

On the other other hand, you come back to the young woman from that neighborhood who does need to know whom to be wary of in her jog. If she's a real city-dweller, she'll have her shields up to a certain level in every interaction.

But if you're going to withhold race from her, what's the use of telling her the height, weight, facial hair, and approximate age of the suspect? I have worked at papers where that was done, in cases where the suspect was identified as a minority.

As one of Suzanne's commenters says:

If we're putting the description out to help the public be wary of and/or help apprehend the suspect, I think including the race here is appropriate, lest EVERY male, black, white, latin, Asian of average build with a thin mustache all be a potential rapist.

And, as another astutely points out, this will backfire as savvy readers learn the shell game:

I know this sounds flippant, but I've found this true with news agencies in general. When race is not mentioned, the suspect is often black, when their skin tone/hair color is described they're white or Latino. But if they're Asian, their race gets noted for everything from murder to taking out the recycling.

Finally, and this is a typical run-through of this debate, as I've experienced it in half a dozen newsrooms, look at how much time has been devoted to sensitivity to race and ethnicity issues, and how little has been devoted to one woman, perhaps herself black or Latino or Asian, who is now afraid to leave her house because that man is out there, somewhere, and police can't find him.

Another of Suzanne's commenters has her in mind:

What I find most sad about this discussion is the context: a human being was assaulted. If it's okay to allow miscreants to terrorize the streets, then sure, use as a vague a discription as possible. If we actually want to aid the victim and keep others from harm, then we need to be able to go beyond the politics of correctness. There's nothing correct about being violated, and it pisses me off that the original posting and the comments are so neglectful of the injury that's been perpetrated on one of us. We all live in this city, and we should care about those who are harmed in it. Regardless of your own racial identity, just ask yourself what it would be like if you were the victim. Would you be caught up in multicultural semantics or would you seek justice?