March 14, 2012

On Tuesday, the AP Stylebook updated its entry on when journalists should publish information about a person’s race.

The update says that race is pertinent in stories about crime suspects who have been “sought by the police or missing person cases,” so long as “police or other credible, detailed descriptions” are used. When the suspect is found or apprehended, the update says, the racial reference should be removed.

Some news organizations use racial identifiers in crime stories, as the AP suggests, despite criticism. There are many times, however, when a source’s race is irrelevant and shouldn’t be included.

One of the challenges, said AP Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn, is determining whether descriptions of suspects are accurate. “We have to use our news judgment on racial references, but if we have reason to believe that it’s from a credible, reasonable source and appropriate for the story, we would include it,” Minthorn said by phone.

But even when you do have an accurate description of a person’s race, is that enough to make it relevant?

My former colleague Keith Woods wrote that racial identifiers are rarely relevant or revealing and can perpetuate stereotypes. While they carry information about heritage and geography, they don’t describe much about a person’s physical appearance.

“What, for example, does a Hispanic man look like? Is his skin dark brown? Reddish brown? Pale? Is his hair straight? Curly? Course? Fine? Does he have a flat, curved nose or is it narrow and straight?” Woods wrote. “Telling the public that he’s 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, with a blue shirt and blue jeans says something about the person’s appearance. But what do you add to that picture when you say Latino?”

He pointed out that journalists probably wouldn’t say, “The suspect appeared to be Italian,” or “Police are looking for a middle-aged man described as ‘Jewish-looking.’”

“There are good reasons those descriptions never see the light of day. They generalize. They stereotype,” Woods wrote. “And they require that everyone who hears the description has the same idea of what those folks look like. All Irish-Americans don’t look alike. Why, then, accept a description that says a suspect was African-American?”

This isn’t to say race is always irrelevant. In racially motivated crimes, such as the murder of James Byrd, race is an important element of the story. The AP Stylebook update explains other instances when it’s relevant:

  • “In biographical and announcement stories that involve significant, groundbreaking or historic events, such as being elected U.S. president, named to the U.S. Supreme Court or other notable occurrences.”
  • “When reporting a demonstration or disturbance involving race or such issues as civil rights or slavery.”

Minthorn, who is one of the Stylebook editors, said the update was added for clarity’s sake.

“What we’re trying to do is formalize practices that we know to be reasonable,” Minthorn said by phone. “I don’t think we have a definition here that covers all instances, but we’re trying to be fair and reasonable in our guidance.”

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Mallary Jean Tenore

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