Prompted by pressure from competition and their own audiences, many news outlets are reconsidering longstanding policies against naming race in crime-suspect stories, says Sally Lehrman for the Institute for Justice and Journalism. The Raleigh News & Observer loosened requirements that allowed for racial descriptions only in violent crime stories. The Arlington Heights (Il.) Daily Herald began contemplating a change after reporters argued that cutting race out made a description worthless. The Sacramento Bee has convened a review committee.
At first glance, the impetus to include race when describing an attacker or burglar seems reasonable. Lehrman asks whether racial identifiers help protect public safety. How trustworthy are eyewitness or police accounts of race? And when they're wrong, what's the damage? Immigration and internal migration have meant that the multiracial population is increasing, making some terminology has become less reliable. Certain markers of race can affect what police or witnesses “see.” A team from the University of Texas, El Paso, and the University of Northern Iowa showed people two identical faces with racially ambiguous features. When they added a stereotypical “Afro” hairstyle, viewers perceived darker skin and different facial features from the same illustration with a slicked-back “Hispanic” hairstyle. Overwhelmingly, participants put each version into a racial category consistent with the hairstyle. The Associated Press is adhering to a strict policy on racial descriptions, says the AP’s Brian Schwaner. “When you can't provide enough detail that really helps you identify a suspect, why put it in?' he asks.