RACIST COVERAGE?

SEAN BELL UPDATE: May 20, 2008
Charges filed against a group of officers involved in the Bell shooting.

Last week, I was at a two-day workshop on how to better cover race and ethnicity. There won't be a column this week, but I am including an email that a listener sent me about race and the Sean Bell story. Bell was a young, unarmed African-American who New York City police killed hours before his wedding. On April 25, the three officers were acquitted. One officer was white; the other two black. Should NPR have mentioned the race of the officers?

From: Patrick Irwin
Sent: Friday, April 25, 2008 4:20 PM
Subject: Racist coverage of the NYC Police trial

Dear NPR, on your 3 PM EST news update on Friday 4/25 your coverage of the NYC shooting trial by three detectives mentioned the victim's race as being black while completely omitting the race of the vindicated police detectives, two of whom are black. Whether the trial was imperfect or not is beyond the scope of my complaint, but the fact that you would mention the victim's race and not that of the officers is sloppy at best. At worst it is politically motivated and inflammatory. Thank you. Patrick S. Irwin

MY RESPONSE: NPR does not make transcripts for newscasts so I cannot readily find the exact newscast that he references. All news organizations need to continually question the need for racial identification in any story and to make it clear why some people are identified by race.

This is a thorny issue: when to mention the race of a person, and deciding why it matters to include it, and whether it does. But in this case, I agree with Mr. Irwin. NPR should have mentioned the race of the police officers because all kinds of assumptions could be made in an emotionally charged, loaded racial story like this one.

It's important for the listeners to have all the facts every time the story is aired because everyone who reads or hears it is likely to assume that the officers are white, unless they are told differently. Since the story was about race and tensions between the black community and the police, it is critical that the race of all the principals be mentioned.

It's likely the verdict acquitting the officers will be appealed, so the story is not over yet.

Does race matter in this story? Should news outlets always include the race of the three officers?

Here are some NPR stories on the Sean Bell case, and they do mention the race of the officers, although not always at the beginning when the case is being explained.

All Things Considered (4-25-2008)
Police Acquittal Heightens Tensions in N.Y.C.
N.Y. Police Acquittal Sparks Anger, Appeal for Calm

Bryant Park Project (4-28-2008)
Wrestling, Politely, with the Sean Bell Verdict

Talk of the Nation (4-29-2008)
Three New York City police officers were acquitted on Friday in the shooting death of Sean Bell, a young, unarmed African-American man who was killed hours before his wedding. Guests discuss the verdict, which some say has deepened fear and mistrust between African-American communities and police.

Blog of the Nation (4-29-2008)

Tell Me More (5-2-2008)
The Barbershop guys weigh in on Obama and Reverend Wright, the latest NBA playoffs and the verdict in the Sean Bell case.

Comments

 

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Racist coverage of election on Talk of the Nation? How come there was no one from a major metropolitan area tonight? Ever been an enlightened white person visiting some of the areas that Mr. Conan talked to? They are against slavery but that is as far as it goes.

Sent by George Klepper | 11:25 PM | 5-6-2008

Yes, the race of the police officers as well as the victim should be cited with every report, simply because if it isn't many people will make assumptions, which may or may not be correct, and which will color the story. The arrest of drug dealers may not raise such a question, as was clear in the story of the San Diego University-Fraternity story that was reported 5-6-08. Any story that includes racial violence or charges of racial violence or the appearance of racially orientated violence should have the races of each person or group identified because race is not yet irrelevant. I have hopes that some day it will be, but at this point, to avoid the unspoken becoming a major part of the story, it all must be said. In a side-note, the status, illegal or legal or citizen or native-born of many people with Hispanic surnames would not need to be cited in every story unless it is germane to a story, as it sometimes is.

Sent by Harriett Dunn | 5:06 AM | 5-7-2008

It's not enough to simply identify the race of the officers. If all the officers were white, as logic and history might lead people to assume, then we might also assume the issue here is racism.

If the officers are black -- as two are in this case -- we might assume that bigotry couldn't be the motivation. Both assumptions are often wrong because they don't account for the complexity of race and law enforcement.

There is a long history of white officers killing black men and boys under circumstances pointing to the most despicable brand of bigotry. Thus, people in the media and beyond who know this history pay special attention to shootings involving black men or other racial/ethnic minorities.

The race of the officers tells you something, but less today than the fact that black Americans still die at the hands of police at an alarming rate.

So it's insufficient to simply tell us the race of the dead man and the officers who shot him. Journalists also need to ask why Sean Bell's race is important -- report the context that makes it important -- then let us judge how significant race is.

Sent by Keith Woods | 11:50 AM | 5-8-2008

Keith Woods (http://www.poynter.org/profile/profile.asp?user=2012) is one of the finest minds on this issue, and I totally agree with him that context is critical. Context is crucial in every story. Thank you Keith for weighing in.
Here's a good piece he wrote on how all black voters -- surprise --don't think alike! http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=58&aid=143030

ACS

Sent by Alicia Shepard | 4:41 PM | 5-9-2008

Context would be nice. And yes, when you start naming race, you should not be selective. Context is considered "activist journalism" by the ombudsman?

While we mostly get the horserace, the press says we will have change in this country because a black man or white woman might be elected president. Race/Gender alone does not bring the transformation. In and of it self, race/gender is an indication of appearance, and when the potential presidential elect still reiterates the dominant culture's status quo, we only have a changed image. I wonder about illusion.

A disproportionate number of the poor in this country are minorities. The powerful (press) do not pay much attention to the poor. The demographic of poor populations is a legacy of systemic racism. We would be better informed if NPR focused on the economic cast of victims. Instead we get economics and reporting from plutocracy. Politicians don't want to focus on issues, and the press happily consents to maintain access.

"Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what's going on in the hood." (Boys in the Hood).

Sent by Andrew Hennessy | 10:18 AM | 5-10-2008

Mr. Hennessy: I do not consider context "activist journalism." I consider it good journalism, and will admit, it isn't done enough in daily journalism.
ACS

Sent by Alicia Shepard | 3:51 PM | 5-12-2008

It is true that I do not know what exactly you mean when you say "activist journalism." I have contacted you about this. You have used the term to disparage other reporters (that give context). Along with other charged terms you elect to use, I have asked you to define what you mean when you say "activist journalism," but you have ignored me. Here you tell of something it is not.

Sent by Andrew Hennessy | 8:57 PM | 5-13-2008