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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.