My colleague Al Tompkins reminds journalists to remember the case of Richard Jewell as they cover the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. Jewell was the security guard wrongly accused of the bombing at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta.
But there is another cautionary tale to be told, and this one comes out of Massachusetts itself. It is not the Salem witch trials, but it can stand in that tradition of paranoia and scapegoating. It involves racial identifiers in stories about suspects.
In 1989, a young Boston man named Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife after childbirth classes, shot himself as a cover, and then told police that his family had been mugged by a black man. After a wide and aggressive dragnet by police in the city’s African-American neighborhoods, an arrest was made and Stuart identified a black man as the killer of his wife and unborn child.
But then Stuart’s brother informed police of the plot. Before he could be arrested and charged with the murder, Stuart killed himself by jumping off the Tobin Bridge into Boston Harbor.
Stuart wasn’t the first white man in America to blame his crimes on a person of color. In a city like Boston, with a long history of racial discord and violence, it was easy enough for a calculating white-collar murderer to spark a police investigation that targeted hundreds of young men who were merely guilty of being black.
In the aftermath of the Stuart case, those of us teaching journalism ethics at Poynter began to look much more closely at the routine practice of signifying the race or ethnicity of criminal suspects. What we discovered is that news descriptions of race and ethnicity rarely resulted in bringing a criminal to justice and often wound up dragging many innocent young men into the spotlight.
I was reminded of the Stuart case while following the news of the Boston Marathon bombings. As I watched coverage by CNN, which has proven to be disappointingly unreliable, the “crawl” on the bottom of the screen indicated that police had interest in a person who was black or dark-skinned, was wearing a hoodie, and spoke with a foreign accent. I am not sure if this was meant to describe a single individual or more than one. It should be obvious that in a college town like Boston there are countless young men who might fit such a vague description.
When I first heard the news of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, I had an image in my mind of the perpetrator. He was male, he was young, he had dark skin, he wore a hoodie, and he spoke with a foreign accent. I had to face my own xenophobia with the arrest of the oh-so-white and American Timothy McVeigh.
I have been following Reddit critiques of the decision of the New York Post to publish page one photos of two young men photographed near the site of the Boston bombings. In case you couldn’t spot these “suspicious” characters, the Post added circles around their faces, a visual metaphor that they were targets, and that we all should be looking for them.
They both have what I would describe — compared to me — as dark skin. So who are they and where are they from and what does that say about them? Are they Arabic or Egyptian or Palestinian or Saudi? Are they African-America or Puerto Rican or Greek or Italian? Are they foreign or domestic?
The Stuart case of 1989 taught us to be cautious with and skeptical of generic physical descriptors, especially in stories that involve criminal violence. Whatever vague evidence those descriptors provide to terrorized communities, their value is outweighed by the harm visited on thousands of innocent people who just happen to fit the description.