Readers question Sun's coverage of race and crime

The Baltimore Sun

Covering race is a serious challenge for newspapers, especially when the stories involve crime. Like many U.S. newspapers, The Sun did not distinguish itself with its coverage of the integration of public schools and the early struggle of African-Americans to gain political and economic equality in the mid-20th century. In recent decades, The Sun's coverage of blacks' political, economic and social concerns has been much better.

The Sun also has sought to increase minority representation in its staff to ensure its journalism better reflects the reality of racial relations in Baltimore and the country. But race remains a volatile issue, and The Sun's coverage and policies continue to be questioned and debated by readers black and white.

Several readers, including University of Maryland School of Law professor Sherrilyn Ifill in an Aug. 11 letter to the editor, questioned the Aug. 4 front-page article, "Violence hits too close to home; Attack puts newlywed in a coma for a watch and a few dollars." Written by police reporter Gus Sentementes, the article updated the case of 27-year-old Baltimore resident Zach Sowers, who was brutally beaten in June near his home and remains hospitalized in a coma. Sentementes described how the case has produced an outpouring of concern in his neighborhood and beyond. Sowers is white.

Ifill and others argued that the newspaper has failed to provide the same level of attention to blacks, who are overwhelmingly the victims of crimes in Baltimore. Given the current statistics - roughly nine out of 10 victims of homicide in Baltimore are black - I understand these complaints. But a recent archive search showed that The Sun has written and prominently displayed a number of articles about black families victimized by murder and crime this year.

Sentementes found the Zach Sowers story compelling for a number of reasons. "The details of the attack on Zach Sowers had been routinely reported by The Sun and other local media soon after it happened. But early on, I learned that his wife, Anna, had been in another city when she began to fear that something had happened to her husband. I thought that pursuing the story with more depth would strike a chord with readers. Many people can relate to losing touch with someone and frantically searching for him or her. In most cases, that search - and the person you worry over - turns out fine, safe and unharmed. But not in this case."

Meanwhile, a newsroom debate about when to mention race in articles has intensified. The discussion is partly fueled by an increasing number of reader questions about The Sun's policy of identifying criminal suspects.

The Sun's guidelines state that providing a crime suspect's description is a public service. These descriptions, when possible, should strive to obtain all of these elements: sex, race, age, height, weight, build, as complete a description of clothing as possible and any details of complexion, hair and eye color, scars or tattoos that set the suspect apart from others of the same sex and race. Sketchy descriptions such as "white male" or "black teenager," which are not helpful in identifying anyone, should be avoided.

Reader Gerald H. Treffinger said of a recent news article: "In your story about that 88-year-old woman who was raped ... the article failed to note the race or even the coloring of the assailant. Don't you think it would help other potential victims to know for whom to be on the lookout?"

Other readers have accused the newspaper of intentionally avoiding racial identifications because it has an ideological agenda that includes denying that race plays a major role in criminal activity.

The article about the rape originally described the attacker as a "black man, between the ages of 20 and 30, 6 feet tall and slim, wearing a gray shirt and tan or khaki pants." The copy desk eliminated the racial identifier in the published version of the article, but the rest of description was included.

John McIntyre, assistant managing editor/copy desks, said later that The Sun should have published the entire description or no description at all. "Omitting the racial detail alone invites the reader to default to the assumption that the assailant was white. And the remaining details potentially point to too many people to be useful," he said.

City Editor Howard Libit, who originally edited the story, disagreed: "In this case, I believed that the entire description - including the race of the suspect - was important to include. Taken together, there were enough specific details to justify putting the description in the newspaper."

I agree with Libit. I think the description was sufficiently detailed and that the information was in the public's interest. This case represents the kind of judgment calls that reporters and editors must make every day.

When will the question of whether to identify one's race in newspaper articles cease to be an issue? Not any time soon. Racial prejudice continues to permeate our society and it is likely to affect perceptions and attitudes for many years to come.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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