When is it appropriate to use race in crime reporting? 

click to enlarge Democrat-Gazette Police Beat

The Arkansas-Democrat Gazette uses racial information in its crime reporting. According to deputy editor* Frank Fellone, the newspaper has used race in its "Police Beat" column "for years and years." The newsroom standard, according to Fellone, is "to use all available information provided by the police."

That's at odds with the conventions of many other news outlets, which avoid racial or ethnic identifiers unless they're important or, in some cases, if victims provide detailed descriptions. Newsrooms apply a standard test, according to a 2008 article from the Society of Professional Journalists: "[Is] the racial information useful to people in the community who might know the attacker or want to avoid harm themselves? Or [is] it so general that it only merely contribute[s] to stereotypes about one group or another?"

The convention isn't a byproduct of modern political correctness. Roy Reed, former Arkansas Gazette reporter, national and foreign correspondent for the New York Times and longtime professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas, said for most of his career the standard was not to use race unless it was "pertinent" to the story. Similarly, Associated Press style says "references to race or nationality must be relevant to the story."

Much of the Democrat-Gazette's reporting of crime includes detailed descriptions of suspects straight from police reports. For instance, on July 9, a brief titled "Tattooed man asks for cash, gets none" reads, "The suspect was described as a white, between 19 and 24 years old, around 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 180 pounds. He had short blond hair and tattoos on both arms, according to police reports."

But a review of the paper's crime reporting in July turned up several instances of race used as a single identifier. In a July 21 brief that appeared on Arkansasonline.com, entitled "Hair-raising scuffle reported at LR wig shop," the suspects are described only as "six black women." In a July 19 article called "Man arrested in robbery of a woman," the man arrested is identified by name and age and then, in the following paragraph, the crime is described as "a black man robbed a woman."

When presented with the July 19 example, Fellone said the racial identifier could have just as well been "a white man," and reasserted that the paper makes "an effort to include all the information" reporters can gather from the police.

But a story from July 14, "Driver swipes Starbucks tip jar," doesn't bear out that standard. In the article, a suspect is described as a "man at the wheel of a black Land Rover." The only other detail the story included was the name and address under which the car was registered. The Little Rock Police Department incident report, however, notes that the suspect was white, bald or balding and wearing "black square frame eye glasses." Two days after the incident, the son of the man identified in the news item (and initial incident report) turned himself in to the police.

Identifying some, but not all suspects by race harkens back to a time when "white men" were merely "men."

"If you hear a report and no race is mentioned, your guess is that the person was white," said Adjoa A. Aiyetoro, director of the UALR Institute on Race and Ethnicity, who said she wonders whether news editors decisions to include racial information stems from "some unconscious view."

The St. Petersburg-based Poynter Institute has spent years collecting examples of racial bias in news stories to use as teaching aids in ethics and diversity programs. According to vice president and senior scholar Roy Peter Clark, the examples may spring from editors striving to be thorough. "But that's what judgment is for, making distinctions between pertinent details and casual ones."

Furthermore, not only is memory malleable, but eyewitnesses may not actually see what they think they see. "The skin color of a person is not as reliable an identifier as the general public might think," Clark said, citing as an example a colleague of Puerto Rican descent who often asks groups to guess his ethnicity just based on his physical appearance and hears everything from Jewish to Arabic to Mexican.

When asked if he had a sense that the Democrat-Gazette's standard for using racial information in crime reporting was unconventional compared to other newsrooms across the country, Frank Fellone said, "I don't know."

A previous version of this story referred to Frank Fellone as managing editor, when he is, in fact, deputy editor.

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