Crime, and leaving race out of the story

By Andrew Wig

Sun CURRENT Newspapers

In journalism, the information you leave out can be just as important as what you include.

When I write a typical school board article, for instance, I don’t write that “Board Chair Schnoodlefritz, who is bald, again took a stand against unfunded mandates from the state.” It might be nice to know our gallant board chair is bald, but it’s not germane to the story. It’s a distraction, and it undermines the purpose of the story.

It’s not that big a deal, though – the reader may be a little puzzled or come away with a slightly hindered understanding of the subject matter because she kept thinking about that shiny, bald head. But in certain topics, the ramifications run deep when deciding what to include and what to omit.

Last week, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities announced it would no longer include suspects’ race in its campus-wide crime alerts if that information is not part of a more detailed description that might lead to an arrest. The rationale was that racial descriptions, when accompanied by little other identifying information, fail to enhance public safety and can actually cause further harm.

Narrowing the pool of suspects down to an entire race does little to help catch anyone, but could lead to the suspicion and harassment of innocent people. Worse, it needlessly contributes to stereotypes that harm society as a whole.

Standards in journalism keep with this stance. In a description of a crime, I only include someone’s race if that person is being sought and it is part of a more detailed description, like “white male, 6 feet tall, in his mid-30s, wearing a jean jacket and aviators.” Another exception is if race is somehow a factor in the story.

Otherwise, it’s no different than mentioning someone’s shoe size, or their favorite kind of ice cream, even. For journalists, this stance comes out of a sense of responsibility to society.

The idea, though, is to work toward a world where this is a non-issue anyway, but that begins with our collective mindset, and part of that mindset is the image that so readily pops in our heads when we hear about that mugging, murder or bank robbery.

Peggy Bakken, Sun Newspapers executive editor, said she’s had calls over the years from readers wondering why we don’t include suspects’ race in standard crime descriptions. Most of those callers, she said, feel it’s important to know which races commit the most crimes.

The FBI breaks down crime by race in its annual crime reports, with categories of white, black, Asian, and native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. In 2013, the latest year for which the racial breakdown is available, blacks accounted for 28 percent of arrests in the country, compared to 69 percent for whites. Blacks make up 13 percent of the population; whites compose 78 percent. (Latino or Hispanic is considered an ethnicity and not a race in this data.)

The disproportion is clear, but how does that information help you? So you know to be fearful to be around an entire group of people? That’s no way to live. It hinders our journey toward a more inclusive society where race has no connotation. And it’s plain gross.

So I found it surprising that, according to a statement from the U, 13 of 14 Big Ten institutions include a suspect’s race in all crime alerts. The U joins Northwestern University as the only other Big Ten school to leave race out when there isn’t more information that might actually help catch the suspect.

The practice of police departments in the metro varies in this regard. Richfield Police, the department I cover, posts weekly incident reports to the web, and those reports do regularly include a suspect’s race with no other descriptors. I base my weekly crime rundown off this report and leave race out unless the aforementioned conditions for including race are present.

The incident reports are based off the more-detailed police reports written by officers, and it is up to them whether to include someone’s race in the narrative, Lt. Mike Flaherty, the department’s public information officer, told me in an email. He also agreed it is good practice for a newspaper to omit race unless it will help catch a suspect, although I’m not sure why the standards between a newspaper and the police department’s website should be different. Those incident reports are just as public as this newspaper since they are both readily accessible, so the societal implications are present in each medium, even if I do assume the paper’s crime rundown gets more eyeballs than the  incident reports on the police department’s website.

On the question of what to include and what to omit, there appears to be no standard practice among police departments in the metro area. I surveyed some of my colleagues at Sun Newspapers to learn how their police departments approach the question. My poll was far too incomplete to fairly compare police departments, but it is clear that their approach to the question varies. Some are like Richfield, while some never mention race unless it’s pertinent.

Some will argue that it’s not our job as journalists or police to play nanny with people’s mindsets, that it’s not up to us to decide what information people can handle. Throw it all out there and let the reader sort it out, one might say.

Well, I’d rather not risk it. If we want a world someday where race is just another detail, we need to think about how we frame the conversation that gets us there.

Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RISunCurrent.