When initial reports about a gang rape in Cleveland, Texas, became public earlier this month, there was hardly any mention of the victim's or suspects' race -- mainly because reporters covering the story didn't think it was relevant. Throughout the last two weeks, however, race and ethnicity have become an increasingly important part of the coverage.

Most news organizations have now reported that the 11-year-old victim is Hispanic, many of the 18 suspects charged are black, and racial tensions are stirring as a result of the rape.

The inclusion of race has, in some ways, raised more questions than it's answered. Why wasn't race mentioned in the initial reports, and at what point did it become relevant? Is there a history of racial tension between blacks and Hispanics in Cleveland, or does the tension have more to do with people believing the suspects were wrongly targeted because they're black? Was race a motive in the crime?

The Houston Chronicle didn't include race in its initial stories about the rape but did so after community activist Quannell X visited Cleveland and suggested that black males were not the only ones involved in the crime.

"We don't ever include race normally -- unless race is made an issue by other people," said Houston Chronicle senior reporter Cindy Horswell, who has written several stories about the rape. "When I was interviewing people about the crime, no one said they thought there was any racial motivation."

Had the victim's parents, or anyone else Horswell talked to, suggested that race was a factor in the crime, she would have included it in the story.

"If someone had said, 'We think she's saying [she was raped] because she's Hispanic or hates blacks, we would have mentioned that,' " Horswell said. "When I talked to people in the community, they mentioned that she was Hispanic but they didn't mention that it was a problem in any way."

Quannell X's talk brought race into the spotlight, said Horswell. She reported that prior to his talk, law enforcement officials had advised him to cancel the meeting because of "racial unrest between black and Hispanic groups."

It's still unclear whether race was a factor in the crime. And while there have been stories about racial tensions in the aftermath of the crime, there has been little, if any, coverage of whether there's a history of racial tension between Hispanics and blacks in Cleveland. There has, however, been an increasing amount of coverage about some residents' belief that the rape is another example of how blacks have been unfairly targeted in Cleveland. The small town, located about 40 miles northeast of Houston, is still dealing with the backlash over a controversial recall election of three black City Council members.

Horswell said there's been a growing uncertainty about whether the suspects in the rape case are being wrongfully accused.

"I think there's a lot of frustration about so many people being arrested," she said. "I think the question now is, 'Well, they're all black -- how come?' Were there other people also involved? Why are we just singling out blacks here? Some, they feel, are not guilty.' "

If you just read the coverage about Quannell X and people's fear that some of the black suspects are being targeted, you might begin to wonder: Are people, journalists included, giving too much attention to the suspects? What about the victim and her family?

Blogger Susan Quesal found herself asking a similar question when reading comments on a blog post she wrote about why race matters in the Cleveland rape case.

"Despite the fact that the majority of my post addressed how race influences the depiction of the victim, most of the comments on the post dealt with my (incredibly brief) mention of the racial uproar surrounding the alleged attackers," Quesal told me via e-mail. "The victim got buried and ignored because people want to talk about the alleged attackers."

Race, she said, is a nuanced but important topic that bloggers should step up and address when traditional media don't. "In news analysis, I'd like to see more nuance, more willingness to get hands dirty, more context," said Quesal, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. "Pretending race doesn't exist doesn't make racism stop existing, it just hides it."

News organizations' approach to covering race & ethnicity

Figuring out whether race is relevant in stories is hardly a new issue for mainstream media outlets, and many have developed related policies over the years.

Cleveland's local newspaper, The Cleveland Advocate, doesn't typically include race in crime stories. In her coverage of the rape, Cleveland Advocate Editor Vanesa Brashier didn't initially mention the victim's race. She said by phone that she decided to do so in follow-up coverage because other media outlets had begun mentioning it in stories about the racial tensions.

It didn't seem as necessary, Brashier said, to include the race of the suspects because she had already run photos of them on the Advocate's website and in the paper. The paper also published a Storify piece showing the photos and highlighting readers' reactions to the crime.

The Associated Press didn't mention the race of the victim or the suspects in its initial story about the rape either.

"We don't identify people's race in most stories, unless that is an issue," said Tom Kent, deputy managing editor for standards and production at The Associated Press. "Say for example, it's a story about a hate crime allegation, or you have a situation where there's a manhunt going on and the police issue a description of the person. We may include the description, but once a person is captured, it probably would not be germane to the story."

The New York Times has a similar policy. It only includes race if it's relevant to the story and if that relevance is made clear to the reader.

"We would mention race in a physical description only if it really is a detailed physical description that readers would learn something from," said Philip Corbett, the Times associate managing editor for standards. "But if the description is a 'white man in his 40s' or 'a black man in a hoodie,' then you're not really providing any useful information and it could be sort of boiler plate."

The New York Times did not mention race in its widely criticized piece about the rape. In response to reader criticism, Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane wrote a column in which he said the Times was working on a follow-up story. Now, it's not clear whether the national desk will run one.

"They did more reporting in the town," Corbett said, "but editors are not sure that there's enough new information to warrant another story at this point."

He noted that if the Times were to write a follow-up it would make sense to include race because it has become a newsworthy element of the story: "It may be that race has nothing directly to do with the initial events, but it seems clear that race does factor into the reaction within the community."

Follow-up crime stories are valuable, Corbett said, because they allow for deeper reporting on the crime itself and the issues that arise as a result of it.

"I think our initial story was done fairly quickly out of necessity, and it became clear to the original reporter and the editors that there was a lot more to this story in terms of context and depth that we weren't able to get into," he said by phone. "It was worth doing more reporting and taking a deeper look."

The Times has done follow-ups on other crimes in which race and ethnicity became part of the story over time. In an initial article about a Pace University student who was fatally shot by a police officer last fall, the Times didn't mention the race of the victim or the officers involved (though it did run a photo of the victim). In subsequent stories, the Times has mentioned race because of allegations that the shooting may have been a violation of civil rights.

Developing better practices for covering race & rape/ethnicity

Statistically, it's rare these days for rape cases to cross color lines. The media, however, are much more likely to report on cases when the victim and suspect are of different races, says Poynter's Kelly McBride. As a result, the coverage has a distorting effect.

Because inter-racial assaults are unusual now, McBride said, "they are more likely to be flagged by cops for the press to look at, talked about by people who know of the case, and viewed as a public safety threat."

She cautioned against mentioning race in stories unless it's relevant and journalists can explicitly describe the relevance.

When the media doesn't describe the relevance, "the audience fills in the blank, often assuming the rape happened because of the difference in races," McBride said. "On top of that, because we in the media are more likely to report rapes that cross color lines, we end up misinforming the public, making it seem like these assaults are more likely than they really are."

To figure out whether race is relevant, McBride suggested that journalists ask themselves some tough questions:

  • What's the relevance of race? How do I know that?
  • Am I making that assertion myself, or do I have authoritative sources to make that assertion?
  • If race is relevant simply because "the community" or "commenters" were talking about it, is it a few people, or is the conversation widespread?
  • If I'm going to introduce race as an element in a rape story, how can I make sure the views of the primary stakeholders are accurate and accurately represented?

News outlets plan to continue covering the Cleveland story, despite a gag order that bars witnesses, attorneys and investigators from talking with the media. Horswell said that moving forward, she plans to profile the suspects and report on racial tensions as necessary. Perhaps most importantly, she hopes to dispel ignorance.

"I think there's obviously a lot of individuals who are not clear on the law involving the rape of a child," Horswell said. "It doesn't matter how she acts or doesn't act, or if you know her age or don't know her age; it's still rape. I think there's a lot of ignorance in that. Maybe we can help inform some people."