On Saturday night, Sept. 17, two men were shot to death within about 45 minutes of each other in different neighborhoods of Washington. There was no connection between the killings. But there was a disconnect with some readers in how they were covered by the paper.
Greg Shipe, 34, was a businessman. He was walking his dog on what neighbors described as a relatively busy street in the Mount Pleasant section of Northwest Washington when he was shot in the face by an unknown assailant at about 10:45. The story went on the front page of Monday's Metro section. There were quotes from neighbors, from a classmate at Vanderbilt University's business school, and from D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who said it was a "horrible event" and the first fatal shooting in Mount Pleasant in almost two years.
Michael Lanham, 32, was shot at least twice, according to police, on Barnaby Terrace in Southeast Washington at about 11:30. He was pronounced dead at Howard University Hospital. A three-sentence story appeared in the Metro in Brief column.
Neither story mentioned the race of the victim. But a half-dozen people e-mailed or called to express their dismay, and in some cases anger, at the contrasting coverage for what they assumed, correctly as it turned out, was the killing of a white man in Mount Pleasant and a black man in Southeast.
"It has happened over and over. I cannot express my disgust enough," said one caller. An e-mailer called the contrast "disheartening." Another said the paper "had provided insight, albeit inadvertently, into the inherent racism in our society." Three readers mentioned the response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina "which your paper was quick to criticize. This discrepancy," one wrote, "speaks volumes about the relative value you chose to attach to these lives."
Those are harsh comments to aim at any paper, but especially at The Post, which publishes in a predominantly black city and which has one of the more racially diverse staffs, especially in the Metro section, of any large newspaper in the country.
A half-dozen complaints is not a big number. Sometimes there can be 1,000 or more e-mails in my in-box. Frequently these days, they are the result of campaigns inspired by media watchers.
But what I have more often found is that the truly vexing problems, the lingering ones that are hard to assess with any sense of confidence, the ones that illuminate the gap between what reporters and editors think they are doing and how portions of the public perceive those efforts, frequently are laid out by one or a handful of readers who bring something personal to their commentary. This is one of those issues. It has been raised before from time to time. But the juxtaposition of these two stories in the same paper provided a particularly obvious illustration.
From the newsroom, things look different. Robert McCartney, Metro's top editor, and two of the news editors who worked on these stories offered these points.
"The Mount Pleasant shooting merited bigger play because it was unusual in two major respects -- it was the first homicide in the neighborhood in two years, and it appears to have been a random killing of a passerby. The community is very upset about it. Race had nothing to do with this decision. In fact, the reporters and editors who decided to play the initial Mount Pleasant story on the Metro front did not know the victim was white." Last month, when a 46-year-old grandmother, who was black, was killed by a stray bullet, that story was on the Metro front page of Aug. 19, he said.
"Every homicide in the region is a tragedy, and we'd like to devote lots of coverage to every one. Resources are finite, however, and we have to make tough decisions based on journalistic judgments. We did so in this case. While it was not a factor at all in this specific decision, it's also true that when we give a lot of play to homicides and other crimes in certain jurisdictions, such as the District or Prince George's County, we often get a lot of criticism for focusing too much on crime," McCartney said.
In the Lanham case from Southeast, a desk editor said: "Police told us about the slaying Sunday night, nearly 20 hours after it happened, and we got all the information they would give us, which wasn't much. Rather than including the sparse details in the story about Shipe's slaying, we felt that Lanham's death would get more attention with a headline of its own, albeit in the briefs column. We ran all our usual checks and decided to treat Lanham's slaying as we do others that do not appear to have extenuating circumstances. In the Shipe slaying, we were also aided in our early reporting by [Jim] Graham, who called to let us know."
Another editor said, "The Mount Pleasant shooting was a natural whodunit crime story" and a mystery that would be of broad interest. "In the other case, had the victim been a juvenile, we would have pursued this apparently drug-related slaying more aggressively. We've been going into neighborhoods and writing stories about virtually every homicide victim 17 or under. But the city has had 138 homicides this year, and we do not write full-blown stories on each of them."
I side with The Post on this episode. As a reader, it seems to me that from what was known Sunday night, the Mount Pleasant shooting was the right decision for Metro's front page. And Metro has put many other crime-victim stories involving non-whites on its front page. But it is also true that a review of the clips shows that a vast number of murders in Southeast and other predominantly black areas wind up in the briefs or crime columns. It is probably true that some, or many, of these merited more coverage. A brilliant piece by Post writer Kevin Merida in August explored the complexity of one such murder.
Today, not many, if any, reporters and editors live in such areas. Not many newspapers, including The Post, have the levels of diversity that really put a paper in better touch with all its readers, and with sources in these communities who can be reached on deadline. The complaints of a half-dozen readers may be explained in this case. But they are a warning of a powerful disconnect that needs attention.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.