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On identifying rape suspects by their color

COMMENTARY | July 12, 2010

Richard Prince, prompted by a Nieman Watchdog blog on a specific case in Des Moines, takes a longer look at a contentious issue.


This report first appeared in Journal-isms, which Prince writes on the Maynard Institute’s Web site.
By Richard Prince

Tiffany Goldman, a 21-year-old woman in Des Moines, Iowa, was brutally raped and her boyfriend pistol-whipped last month by three men who also stole their belongings.
Gilbert Cranberg, a longtime editorial page editor at the Des Moines Register who retired in the early 1980s, criticized his former paper for not mentioning that the men were black. "When fugitives are at large, it’s undeniably useful to know a person’s color in narrowing the field of suspects," he wrote June 22 on the Nieman Watchdog site.
A Des Moines Register video of the victimized couple does show the fiance, Brad Evans, eventually describing his tormenters as "African American."

More important: A spokeswoman for the Des Moines Police Department says police actually have more detail than the description of "three black males" that Cranberg said should be published — but that even the added detail is "way too broad" to be helpful.
That real-world assessment from Sgt. Lori Lavorato flies in the face of some viewers, readers and even journalists who maintain that publishing racial descriptions of suspects, however vague, helps in their apprehension.

"We don't identify someone's race unless we have other identifying information as well," Register Editor Carolyn Washburn told Journal-isms on Wednesday. "In this case, we only knew at the beginning that the suspects were black men. That vague description would only serve to make all black men suspects and would not help narrow the search. We waited until we had slightly more detail a few days later, but even then there wasn't much description.
"I thought that approach was still pretty typical across news organizations. Has that changed?"
It depends. One can still hear suspects racially identified in the broadcast media and in smaller-circulation print publications. It's a perennial topic for public editors who hear from readers accusing their news organizations of being "politically correct" by omitting race. It was only five years ago that Michael Getler, ombudsman for the Washington Post — now at PBS — wrote, "There is something about withholding information that the police make public that is troubling in a case such as this. It seems to me that the chance that it may be helpful is what's important and that people will understand that."

Here are the police descriptions of the Des Moines suspects, all "black males, about 20 to 23," Lavorato said. Suspect One: Wearing braids, in possession of a .32 semi-automatic, a black shirt, red bandana, 6'3", 150 pounds, black hair, unknown eye color. Second suspect: Approximately 23 years old, black shirt, black do-rag, black bandana, .22 caliber rifle with a pistol grip; 6'1", unknown hair color and eye color. Third: Wore all black clothes, a black bandana, carrying a handgun, about 23 years old, 6 feet, 180 pounds, unknown hair and eye color.
"We haven't had any good information" from the public since those descriptions were released, Lavorato said. "In general, this is way too broad. . . . This information isn't going to help."
Many news organizations have policies such as this, at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
"We do not identify an individual by race unless the information is clearly relevant. In crime stories in which authorities seek a fugitive, a racial designation is included as part of a very detailed description that provides enough information to aid in the capture of a suspect. We should take the position that designating a person as white or black, or some other racial classification, does not provide information, necessarily, on what the person looks like. A person's complexion, facial features, distinguishing marks may all be part of a detailed description. The same theory holds for unidentified bodies in a police investigation. We do not identify them as black or white, or any other racial classification, unless it is part of a detailed description."
Some factors to consider:
  • How specific is the police description?
Bill Ketter, who was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1995-96 and later edited the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune, told his staff, "Reporters should always press police for details that distinguish suspects from other persons of the same racial or ethnic group."
  • What does a "black male" or a Latino look like?
Eleven years ago, Keith Woods, then of the Poynter Institute, wrote an essay, "The Language of Race," in which he said:
"All racial and ethnic groups do share some common physical characteristics. Still, we don't see the phrase 'Irish-looking man' in the newspaper, though red hair and pale skin are common Irish characteristics. Would a picture come to mind if a TV anchor said, 'The suspect appeared to be Italian'? Couldn't many of us conjure an image if the police said they were 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. 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?'" 
  • What are the chances that the constant repetition of suspect descriptions as "black male" or "Hispanic male" will lead readers and viewers to view all members of that group in that way?
Who can forget the cases of whites who performed crimes and, to deflect suspicion, lied and said a black or Hispanic person did the deed?
  • How good are eyewitness identifications, anyway?
"Over 175 people have been wrongfully convicted based, in part, on eyewitness misidentification and later proven innocent through DNA testing," the Innocence Project reported last year. "The total number of wrongful convictions involving eyewitness misidentifications exceeds this figure, given the widespread use of eyewitness testimony and the limited number of cases in which DNA evidence is available for post-conviction testing."
As the psychiatrist Steve Rubenezer wrote on the subject of wrongful identifications, "Expectations influence what people see — or think they see."

Posted by d brown
07/19/2010, 01:56 AM

Tests going back to the early 60's have proved that eyewitness may believe what they say. But they see things they could not have. Their brain wants to know so it fills in what it's trained to think should have happened.

Posted by john
08/12/2010, 04:51 PM

Give me a break...It absolutely matters what race the perps are if they are still on the run. That shouldnt even be a question. Skin color and race are part of everyone's description. Even a mixed race person such as Obama would not be listed as white if he were to commit a crime and be on the run. He would be labled as a tall light skinned black man. That description helps alot more than saying that the suspects are just..."3 men" [wow thats so...not helpful].

Posted by Tyrone
09/20/2011, 10:26 AM

This is just another example of a brother with an agenda. Instead of stating what we all know: That the paper should have researched and included all the details Mr. Prince has to make it into a race issue.
Disgusting and a discredit to our race.

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