The Star reported that the men ditched a car then fled on foot into a neighborhood. Police cordoned off a wide area and brought in dogs and a helicopter to find the men, whom they considered armed and dangerous.
While ABC News reported "three African-American male suspects allegedly robbed" the store, the Star didn't feel compelled to include a complete visual description of the fugitives--one of whom is still at large--because that would bring up the sensitive issue of race. But do the residents affected by the manhunt deserve to have a full picture of what the suspects look like, for their own personal safety?
It depends, according to Star policy.
Joe Howry, the former editor of the Star, articulated why most newspapers don't repeat the race of suspects--even if most police departments do--in a 2009 editorial.
The Star's policy is to include ethnicity/race in suspect descriptions, provided there is enough detailed information that ethnicity/race is relevant and likely would be helpful in leading to an arrest.
If a large manhunt involving three armed suspects doesn't warrant such details, then you're not going to read many Star stories where race is mentioned (unless it's this or this). Howry tells us why the policy is in effect:
The Star believes that to include ethnicity/race in a general description perpetuates stereotypes and is not precise, accurate or fair. In other words, providing a very broad and general description of a crime suspect that includes race/ethnicity increases the chance that innocent people will be implicated and possibly harmed.
Howry acknowledged that reporting on race "tests the competence and ethics of journalists" particularly when it comes to the "most fundamental of reporting tasks: the description of crime suspects." But he ultimately dismissed critics' claims that excluding racial information from dangerous suspects is a form of political correctness.
"What may appear to be political correctness is, in truth, acting professionally and ethically to do what's right," Howry wrote.
Had the policy been borne of political correctness, it might be more understandable--race is a third rail that nobody wants to touch due to the special-interest firestorm that awaits anyone who does. Instead, the Star's policy is to not "perpetuate stereotypes" that "increases the chance that innocent people will be implicated and possibly harmed." In other words, it's their duty.
On the subject of protecting innocent people, don't the
Adam Foxman, who reported on Tuesday's robbery, is no stranger to this criticism. In a 2009 Crime Blog entry, he wrote, "We often receive criticisms from commenters and law enforcement officials about our policy in regards to printing the description of a suspect's race..."
Foxman went on to explain--and I'm pararphrasing--that the Star did report that a suspect in a 2009 robbery was black because other descriptions given about the suspect were specific enough not to implicate all black men. Foxman wrote:
One reason we are cautious about printing racial descriptions is that there are potentially negative ramifications of using race as a descriptor. Unlike, say, height, race is not a hard and fast descriptor, and using it without other specific details could lead to profiling that negatively effects people and doesn't really help police, we believe.
Like Foxman, I've also heard criticism from law enforcement
In effect, critics of such policies--the Star is by no means alone on this in the industry--contend that willfully withholding important facts regarding the physical description of suspects because of doubts as to whether its readers will form the correct conclusions is a form of advocacy.
That's a slippery path for journalists to tread. If a media outlet sees its role as selecting certain facts to make its readers reach a predetermined conclusion instead of reporting all the facts so they can reach their own conclusions, then we don't have journalists--we have activists, to the extent of which they engage in such practices.