There was no avalanche of mail or phone calls last week about the journalism surrounding any particular subject. But as so often happens, it is that individual e-mail or call from one or two readers that focuses on an issue going to the heart of what news organizations do and how they do it.
Such was the case last Tuesday when a powerful and tragic story was spread across the top of the Metro section. The headline said, "2 Killed, 2 Robbed in Prince George's; Band of Four Men Sought in Attacks." The story, by reporters Allison Klein and Philip Rucker, reported that one of the robbers shot and killed Herminio Moscoso, a 26-year-old father of two, as he came to the aid of his younger brother, who had a gun put to his head by one of the four men who had surrounded him. About 15 minutes later, the men fatally shot William Everette Miller, a 46-year-old mechanic, as he tried to get away from the robbers at a gas station where he had gone to get cigarettes. After the two murders, the four men committed two more robberies that same morning.
The story reported that: "Police are looking for the gunmen, described as being in their late teens or early twenties, driving a newer-model tan or light-colored sedan."
The news release put out by the Prince George's County Police Department was more specific. It said: "The four suspects are described as black males, possibly late teens or early twenties. One of the suspects is about 5'7", 22-25 years old, wearing a gray long sleeve T-shirt, and cornrow hairstyle. The suspect's vehicle is described as a newer model tan or beige/light colored sedan." The Post did not report the race of the suspects or the details that were available on one of them.
When I asked editors about this, they cited the paper's guidelines on race and relevancy. The guidelines say: "In general, race and ethnic background should not be mentioned unless they are clearly relevant. They are obviously relevant in stories about civil rights issues, the problems or achievements of minority groups, cultural history and racial conflict. They are also relevant and should be used in crime stories when we have enough specific identifying information to publish a police description of a suspect who is being sought."
Metro editors said it was their "view that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of black men about 5'7" with cornrows between ages 22-25 in Prince George's and (nearby) D.C. That is not specific enough detail to avoid a mass of innocent black men being 'suspects.' " Metro's top editor, Robert McCartney, said, "This strikes me as a judgment call: How specific does the description need to be before we provide the identifying information?" Our experienced editors, he said, "thought this call was the right one, given Post Stylebook guidelines."
Here's what a reader in Prince George's County said: "There are evidently four violent murderers of random civilians at large in the county in which I live." He then cited The Post's description of the suspects and added, "That is not true. The police are looking for people using a more specific description than that, one that includes race. The Post took that information out. I know The Post usually defends this practice by saying that 'four white teenagers' [or African American or Asian American or Latino teenagers] provides information that is no more useful than saying 'two teenagers.' Maybe. The police certainly disagree. I think I do, too. But once you've added the fact that the murderers are driving a 'newer model tan or light-colored sedan,' any additional descriptive factor at all becomes powerful, enough for investigators to do effective work with. It's also useful information for those of us filling up our gas tanks at 7 a.m. near where the robbers/murderers prowl.
"The Post's decision to strip useful identifying information out of its crime stories strikes me not only as empirically wrong but also paternalistic," he said. "I suppose it would be ad hominem for me to add that those of us who live in the areas suffering waves of violent crime care more about this stuff than do senior editors."
These are tough calls for editors. Could these fuller descriptions be useful for residents, or do they feed dangerous and unfair racial stereotyping that inflames racial prejudice without being legitimately useful in apprehending suspects?
This situation has happened several times before. It was also the subject of an ombudsman column four years ago, in August 2001. People hear about the more detailed police description, or see it on TV or in other papers, and they let me know about it. In this case, for example, the Prince George's Gazette, which is owned by The Washington Post Co., printed the full police description. Some people who write may have racial motives. But others seem to express genuine concern at Post editing practices and I find myself, even more than in the previous case, in agreement with them.
I wrote four years ago that the reality that newspaper editors at times feel different constraints than police departments about what should be made public about crimes is something that needs steady scrutiny. But 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.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.