Ethics Of Racial Identification p.17

By: STACY JONES WHEN REPORTERS AT the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah, wrote about the murder of a Motel 6 clerk, their inclusion of the race of two suspects went against the paper's policy on revealing the race of crime suspects and victims.
It also created a debate between the the editors of the News and the competing Salt Lake Tribune over the ethics of using racial identification in news stories.
The News' story on the Oct. 29 murder in rural Woods Cross was relatively straightforward except for one paragraph which paraphrased information given by Woods Cross Police Chief Paul Howard on the murder suspects.
The paragraph stated that "nearby business owners reported suspicious activities of two black men in a large, dark green car, possibly a Cadillac, who were seen about that time near the motel . . . ."
Don Woodward, managing editor of the News, included the race of the suspects, he said, because the "police had no leads on it."
"The police were looking for people who had any information ? not mainly as suspects," he said. "The only way [the police] were going to get a break in the case was by someone who had been there. The inference that we did it because of racism is totally wrong."
Such logic didn't impress Keith Woods, associate in ethics at the Poynter Institute.
"Journalists are not police and the police description is not a journalistic tool," he said.
The purpose of the police description is to cast a wide net and locate as many suspects as possible, irregardless of fairness, continued Woods.
Journalists, however, "must take accountability for the effect of what we do."
The Tribune covered the murder, as well, but did not mention the race of the two men, nor that they were suspects.
Race "doesn't go to the heart of the issue. It is irrelevant," said Tribune editor James E. Shelledy, who stated he was very disturbed by the News' use of race in their story.
"These two people mentioned were not even suspects," he continued, adding that the police never told the Tribune the men were suspected of committing the murder. "They were just seen in the area."
Printing such a description, insisted Shelledy, "would have painted any black person in Utah."
Woods Cross Police Chief Paul Howard admitted he told the News that the two men were suspects, which was a mistake.
"In retrospect, I would tell the newspapers [the men] were wanted for questioning because they may have provided vital information" since they were in the area around the time of the murder, he said.
Even if the two men had been suspects, race would still not be a factor, said Shelledy, who contends that simply stating a person's race isn't much of a description. "That isn't very helpful."
More importantly, said Woods, is that the identification of race "is imprecise journalism."
Editors often think, "If I can give people more information, it's better," said Woods. "The flaw is [including race] is not good journalism.
"Race is not a descriptive term at all. It does not describe a person's color, but heritage," explained Woods.
Confronted with these criticisms, Woodward argued that his paper had made the correct choice. He refused to respond when asked if an individual's race was, in reality, a vague description.
In reference to the Woods Cross murder case, however, Woodward said, race in combination with the identificaton of the pair's green car "narrowed it down sufficiently."
"Identifying a suspect is a public service," offered Woodward. "It would have been wrong not to."
On Nov. 22, two 18-year-old high schoolers from Bountiful were charged in the motel killing.


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