New York Times, Houston Chronicle explain relevance of race & ethnicity in Cleveland rape coverage

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.”

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Suzie Siegel

    I wrote about the relevancy of race to this case at on Thursday, 3/17. My take is different: I’m guessing the NYT reporter tried for balance by interviewing black residents in the neighborhood where the girl was raped. That strategy made it seem like that was the common opinion in Cleveland. Ditto for writing about how the town was divided. Only later was it mentioned that the division seems to be along racial lines — at least, that’s what I assume when people talk about racial tensions, or that the town is becoming segregated again.

    Thus, the NYT printed dangerous rape myths that went unchallenged. Can you imagine it printing racist comments unchallenged if 18 whites had raped a black child over several months?

    One problem with Quanell X’s visit was that some media presented it as a town-hall meeting, and some readers thought the audience was a fair representation of the town. (I’ve got links in my blog post.)

    Hi, Tina! Small world. Hi, Snobographer. I agree that the DeAnza case is an abomination, but I don’t think it’s that close a comparison. The victim was 17, not 11. Sadly, consent is a big issue in that case, while consent is irrelevant in the Cleveland rapes because of the victim’s age. Also, there are still photos and video of the Cleveland rapes. One similarity, though, is that two star athletes are accused in the Cleveland case.

    Mallary, you wrote: “Statistically, it’s rare these days for rape cases to cross color lines.” But your link goes to a report that used 1991 statistics from only three states — North Dakota, South Carolina and Alabama. It concluded that “in about 88% of forcible rapes, the victim and offender were of the same race.” It doesn’t mention change over time.

    In contrast, Joanna Connors wrote an incredible series for the Plain Dealer in 2008, in which she wrote: “Interracial rape is not uncommon. In the most recent U.S. Dept. of Justice statistics, from 2005, 33.6 percent of reported rapes were of a white victim by a black offender.”

    Obviously, we can pick apart statistics. Nevertheless, I wish journalists would stop pretending they are colorblind when race does play a role in an unfolding story.

  • Shan

    The main problem here was giving Quannell X media coverage. The man is an extreme racist (against anyone who isn’t black) who loves to play the race card at every opportunity. To him, EVERY incident has a racial overtone. He is a narcissistic camera hog who loves to insinuate himself into situations and make blatently ridiculous racist accusations in order to get himself in the news, not caring that he often makes tense situations worse. He’s a Jesse Jackson wannabe, and why people continue to cover his “news conferences” is a continuing mystery to me.

  • Poynter

    Hi Tina,

    Thanks for your comment. You raise some interesting points about hate crimes. The implications of hate crimes is an important topic, but that wasn’t the main focus of this piece. The piece is meant to focus on the role race played in news organizations’ coverage of the Cleveland rape — not to define hate crimes or suggest that rape is only a hate crime if racial bias is involved.

    ~Mallary Tenore

  • Tina Trent

    The presumption here is that rape is only a hate crime if racial bias is involved. That presumption is fascinating — particularly because this reporter seems to have no curiosity about its implications in an article in which she claims to be examining the meaning of identity in reporting a crime.

    So why isn’t a gang rape counted as a hate crime? Unlike most of the minor, verbal or simple assault, one-on-one incidents that get defined as “hate,” this is an actual coordinated attack by a group of people sharing an identity that has a direct bearing on the crime and choice of victim: males, and rape, and female, in that order. It is an attack directed at an inherent characteristic of the victim (female), targeting the things that define her as female (her sexuality and sex organs) and employing humiliation against those characteristics as a weapon. It was even videotaped — recorded — like lynching photographs that were once passed around, to memorialize the humiliation of the victim.

    Gender bias protection is part of Texas hate crime law. And no matter how loudly activists scream that “gender” doesn’t include biologically born females (as opposed to transvestites, etc.), it does. So why no discussion of this?

    The extremely ugly truth is that hate crime activists do not want women to be counted as hate crime victims because, if they were, then the vast majority of victims of hate crime and virtually all victims of serious hate crimes (as opposed to verbal altercations and minor vandalism) would be female victims of sexual assault, most specifically of stranger-rape, where the victim is usually a randomly chosen female chosen because she is female — unless the victim is chosen because he is male.

    Which also ought to be counted as hate, if we’re actually going to start being honest about these things and behaving as if hate crime laws apply to all instance of hate, not just the ones Eric Holder wants to talk about. To the eternal credit of second-wave feminists, who actually believed in equality, not hierarchies of protection like bias crime laws, rape law itself is now gender-neutral, so males who are raped are no longer without recourse. So if a gay male predator chooses male victims, he ought to be prosecuted for choosing that gender, right? And if a heterosexual predator chooses females, ditto.

    But counting rape as hate is extremely problematic to certain well-placed journalists and activists because, not only would heterosexual women (minority and non-minority) then be revealed as the category of people most likely to be targeted for violence due to their inherent characteristics, but a substantial percentage of the hate crime perpetrators would be minority males (attacking both minority and non-minority females).

    Can’t have that. That’s not what the laws were written for, you see. Eric Holder wouldn’t like it. So organizations like the Poynter Institute work hard to make sure that discussions about this subject are suppressed in precisely those places where people pretend to be talking about crime coverage and identity and hate crime and journalistic responsibility.

    Nothing to see here. Just a bunch of editors pretending they’re not abetting the ugly cynicism of the hate crimes activist community. Unless, of course, you want to argue that rape is an act of respect and love, not contempt and hatred.

  • snobographer

    A compelling comparison can be made between the Cleveland TX case and the DeAnza case. Both victims were underage and Hispanic, but in the DeAnza case the assailants were mainly white college baseball players. Then District Attorney Delores Carr, followed by then California Attorney General Jerry Brown, wouldn’t even let the DeAnza victim have a criminal trial. She’s currently seeking whatever justice she can get in civil court.

    One has to wonder if the Cleveland TX assailants had been a bunch of middle-to-upper class white jocks would the media and legal system be making even more excuses for them? I’m guessing probably.

    Not for nothing but if either girl was a 35 year old prostitute it would have been a crime to “have sex with” her against her will.

  • Robin Caldwell

    We can argue race and its relevance in this case until we’re blue in the face, but a few important facts prevail: (1) The victim was not merely a minor, she was a child – someone’s child, (2) what happened to her, consensual or not, was a crime, (3) because of these inane discussions, you have a child who is hesitant to follow through with authorities and (4) she needs to get serious help to overcome this heinous offense. I’m black and tired of the way we treat race in this country. We don’t like to discuss it when it really counts and love to ride it like a race horse when it doesn’t count. That little girl could’ve been anyone’s child.