SPJ Suggests ‘Omitting Race’ in Crime Reporting


By: Warner Todd Huston

Society of Professional Journalists has decided that it is best to leave a suspect’s race out of crime reporting except for “extraordinary” reasons. Of course, to the SPJ, “good reporting” means race info in a story about crime isn’t “useful to people in the community” even if the race of a suspect is part of a police report apparently. Despite their claim that they aren’t toeing the PC line, their explanation is filled with just the sort of reasoning based on PC thinking — one of which is that all whites are racists.

Some of you may remember the story in September of 2007 when the Sacramento Bee announced that they were revisiting their policy of including race in their crime stories. A particularly gruesome crime occurred that brought the Bee to revisit their policy when they reported on the suspect leaving out race while Internet reporting as well as the Bee’s own comments section on their internet posting of the story reported the race of the suspect anyway.

SPJ continues, however, to come down on the side of leaving the race of a suspect out of crime reporting. I find their reasons, though, less than convincing. In fact, their concerns are so broad as to make all reporting on every issue untenable if applied farther than just race in crime reporting.

The SPJ says that whites will always assume that “an object in a black man’s hand” is “a weapon,” seeming to accept the premise that all whites are racists. They point out that racial intermarriage and breeding makes skin color and race impossible to determine. They say that Hispanics can look black and they bring up the unreliability of the human memory. All these, they say, are reasons never to mention the race of a suspect in a crime story. “Fuzziness” and that “memory is delicate, and especially so when it comes to emotional situations, as well as cross-racial descriptions” seems to be enough for the SPJ to exclude race in crime reporting.

It is absolutely a fact that the human memory can be vague and unreliable. Part of good police work is to record the testimony of more than just one witness if at all possible. Still, however, it seems a bit odd for a paper not to report the information that the police reports contain. In fact, there is only one prevailing reason to leave it out and the SPJ clearly assumes the argument.

When police and the community are blinded by ideas about what a particular race looks like, whole groups suffer from suspicion and the actual culprit can escape.

So, as far as the SPJ is concerned PC “social” concerns are more important than reporting the information of a crime. Instead of actually reporting all available facts, the SPJ is saying that a news source should be more about having greater societal concerns in their work and that the “news” should be written less to report the facts and more to engage in the social “sciences.” Also, while they claim not to be bowing to PCism, it seems like every one of their reasons seem based on PC principles.

This raises a whole different concern: what is the news for? Is the news for presenting the facts of current events, or is the news an avenue for social engineering?

Obviously, the SPJ imagines for “professional journalists” a far greater role than just reporting the news. In fact, the SPJ imagines that they should be the arbiters of what people should be allowed to be exposed to. This seems to me to be a far different role than what any normal person would assume a reporter’s role would be. And, can we assume that the average journalist is trained enough in the social sciences to be able to fulfill this expanded role the SPJ imagines for all journalists? Do journalists have the same training as sociologists? I think not.

They certainly think an awful lot of themselves, don’t they?

The SPJ writer of this piece, by the way, seems to visit the subject of race often. Apparently it’s a big concern of hers as the search option at SPJ shows many of her articles are based on racial and gender concerns.

So, what do you think? Should a journalist be responsible for writing about the facts or should they be concerned with deciding what is best for society?

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