Handling Race/ethnicity in Descriptions

It will come up. On the first day of school or the first day on the job; in the most innocuous story and the most profound; on the front page, the features page, the home page, the A-block or the B-roll. Race/ethnicity pervades and invades, and as one of the most feared and least understood topics of journalists the world wide, it is potentially explosive each time it comes up.

Covering such an issue requires awareness, skill, care, thoughtfulness and critical thinking. Doing it well means honoring the ethical principles of accuracy, fairness and contextual truth, along with the narrower journalistic goals of clarity and precision. Done well, reporting on race/ethnicity and race relations can illuminate, offer guidance, even help people heal.

Journalism has come a great distance toward reaching those goals, but some problems are stubborn and many linger. Building an early awareness of the places journalists most need to improve will go a long way toward making things even better. We’ll deal with one of those areas here:

The Suspect Was Described As …

Race/ethnicity continues to be used as a means of describing people, though it carries no true color and offers a mind-boggling range of eye/ear/nose/mouth/skin-color combinations from which to choose. It is imprecise, often bordering on inaccurate, to describe someone by race/ethnicity. Those are ethical concerns, and the harm done by such “racial profiling” demands of journalists the highest level of care and thoughtfulness.


Though the subject tends to raise the passions of journalists and can dominate a discussion, this module is designed to support relatively short conversations within broader lessons. The discussion can be enriched with out-of-class reading. It’s best if students have had some discussion or reading on the issue of talking across difference. The introduction to the Studs Terkel book, “Race: How Blacks and Whites Feel About the American Obsession” would be a good primer.

Provide students with a set of facts that includes the description of a suspect. Include race/ethnicity among the facts, along with age, clothing and height.

A case:
Dateline: St. Petersburg, FL
When: Monday, June 4, 2001
Where: “Gold and Diamond Store,” 3800 Ulmerton Rd.
Source: Pinellas County Sheriff’s Dept. press release.
Responding officers: Patrol officers Michael Beasely, Cynthia McCormick, 9th Precinct

Release narrative: At approximately 4 p.m., two suspects entered the above-named business and accosted the store’s owner, Mr. Phong Nguyen, a Vietnamese man. The suspects asked to try on several gold rings. While Mr. Nguyen was helping the first suspect, an African-American male with short hair who was about 5-foot-10, the second suspect, an African-American male approximately 25 years old with a gold tooth and standing approximately 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, used an unidentified object to break the display glass. When Mr. Nguyen turned his attention to the second suspect, the male he was assisting also broke a display case. Both men proceeded to quickly remove jewelry from the cases. When Mr. Nguyen demanded that they cease, Suspect #1 pulled a small revolver from behind his back and shot Mr. Nguyen once in the chest. The victim, who is 5-foot-6 and 149 pounds, was taken to Bayfront Hospital, where he remains in stable condition as of 4:30 p.m.

The Assignment

Have the students write the stories, then discuss structure, lead types (straight lead, delayed-identification lead, summary lead, etc.)

Have them read a few stories aloud (or have the instructor do it, or have students read via the classroom intranet.) Note the difference between students who included the racial identifications and those who didn’t. Explore the difference. (“Why did/didn’t you think the fact was important?”)

The Transition

This discussion should be grounded in journalism ethics. It would be helpful if students were familiar with the “Guiding Principles” and “Doing Ethics” guidelines developed by Poynter’s Bob Steele.

Descriptions should be accurate and precise. That is a fairness issue because the broader, more imprecise a suspect description, the greater is the chance that innocent people will be implicated and, thus, harmed.

Ask students to talk about the ethical concerns they might have about including and excluding the race/ethnicity of a suspect. Talk about the stakeholders in your decision. Discuss alternatives available to journalists who wish to “seek the truth and tell it fully” and also “minimize harm,” two of the principles identified in Steele’s model.

Facing the Facts: An exercise

There are a number of ways to make the point that race/ethnicity, as a descriptor, is imprecise. Here’s one: Ask students to think of a person who would be described as Hispanic. Have them write down descriptive characteristics of that person, using only the person’s face. Canvas the class, writing their descriptions down on an untitled sheet of newsprint. If possible, group hair style/color/texture together with skin color, eye shape and color, shapes of the nose, mouth, lips, ears.

When you’re done, the list is likely to be fairly broad and will cover a range of possible characteristic combinations. Write the word “Hispanic” above the list and ask the students to consider the many possible interpretations for the word. Those myriad possibilities underscore the imprecision of race/ethnicity as a descriptor.

Another way to prompt discussion is to draw the outline of a person’s face, then offer a typical description and ask the journalists to add the facial features that they “see” based upon the description. That is, ask them to draw eyes, a nose, a mouth, even a skin tone based upon the description.

The point: Race/ethnicity, as a descriptor, is not truly information beyond allowing the audience to lump people into social groupings. It is valid in stories about race/ethnicity – stories about racial conflict, interracial marriage, some Census stories. But as a descriptor, it only eliminates those clearly not in the racial group, while frequently making suspects of nearly all of those in the implicated racial group.

If, in the end, the description fails even to provide a mental picture shared by most people, it fails the test of journalistic value. Yet, it perpetuates the “profiling” of people by assuming that if you know a person’s race/ethnicity, you can somehow “see” them in your mind’s eye.


Our conditioning, in the United States and many parts of the world, is to accept without question the validity of describing people by race/ethnicity. If we have enough additional information – clothing, distinctive scars or birthmarks, etc. – we assume race/ethnicity is a valid descriptor. But unless the description involves the color of a person’s skin – be it mahogany, tan, olive, peach – race/ethnicity has narrowed the field about as well as if we’d said the suspect was wearing pants.

Police departments are not in the habit of providing that level of detail, though they may have it available. Journalists need to demand more.

  • Profile picture for user kwoods

    Keith Woods

    Keith Woods is NPR’s vice president for newsroom training and diversity.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon