Policy Corner: When does race matter in a story?

  • Jim Baumann, Assistant Vice President/Managing Editor, 2015 head shot

    Jim Baumann, Assistant Vice President/Managing Editor, 2015 head shot

 
 
Posted5/3/2021 1:00 AM

I hear from readers occasionally with questions framed as "Why did you make that story about race?" or "What does it matter what race he or she is?"

Recent examples have sprung up with the spate of police shootings of Black people and the election of Kamala Harris as vice president.

 

My answer is that we write about a person's race only when it is relevant.

This practice come into play particularly regarding crime stories. We have a long-standing policy at the Daily Herald that we do not identify someone by race in a crime story where someone is on the loose unless we can provide enough additional description that would help someone recognize that person: hair color, height, body type, clothing, scars or tattoos.

The rule was created in the 1970s as the suburbs began to diversify, but the range of diversity wasn't reflected throughout the paper. People of color often bristled, understandably, that the only time race was mentioned or pictured was when someone was a crime suspect. Too often, when a suspect was still at large, the only discriminating feature mentioned was the color of the person's skin.

There are, of course, times when race is relevant in a story. If someone, for example, were arrested for attacking a person of Asian descent out of prejudice related to the coronavirus or any other reason focusing on ethnicity, we would report that person's race.

When someone of color is shot by a police officer, that person's race and the race of the officer already will be part of the public debate because the issue is so strongly on people's minds today.

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Race -- and gender -- also matter in other types of stories. The diversity of President Biden's cabinet, for instance, or the election of Kamala Harris as vice president attract attention because these situations represent substantial changes from previous norms.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth took a stand when Biden did not choose an Asian-American to serve on his Cabinet.

We write a lot about firsts, whether it be the first person to pitch a perfect game, the first person to break the sound barrier, the first person of a given race to become secretary of defense or win the vice presidency. We celebrate firsts as people in ethnic and gender groups celebrate firsts.

To someone in the Indian community, Harris is a very big deal. To women everywhere, having a woman a heartbeat from the presidency is, well, the next best thing ... for now.

So, we write about race only when it's relevant, but we never shy away from it when it is.

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