The News-Gazette coverage of crime alerts exploits racially charged language

By Jill Disis

Jill Disis

At the University of Illinois this semester, it was hard to walk anywhere without at least thinking about the supposed “crime spree” in the back of my mind. Accounts of sexual assaults, robberies, peeping toms and beatings spread across the campus like wildfire. But even amid the general fear of crime on and near campus, one especially charged issue has been a point of controversy since the University started releasing crime alerts last year: whether reports should identify offenders by race when reporting a crime or looking for assistance in finding a perpetrator.

One of the first times I noticed the issue coming to a head was in late September of this year when The News-Gazette printed a series of articles covering attacks on white men being “slugged for sport” by young black men. Early articles termed the attacks “polar bear hunting,” a term that was vehemently denied by the local police department.

The crime alerts themselves are sources of racially-charged terminology. The News-Gazette pointed out that these types of crimes had spread to the city from campus, where they started. Several of those campus attacks were reported in crime alerts sent via mass e-mail to students and faculty, wherein offenders were identified by race — a move that officials have said is for informational and assistance purposes if the race of the person is relevant.

As a person and as a woman, frankly scared to death about the possibility of an attack, I agree with the decision to publish a person's race, especially in the case of identification of an individual the police department is trying to track down. If it is paired with other descriptive information that could help identify the suspect, then knowing one's race is essential to helping track him or her down — black, white, Asian, Hispanic or otherwise. As a woman I feel a sense of vulnerability about attacks happening to others of my gender, and my immediate reaction is that the offenders must be stopped. Identifying them as specifically as possible is one way by which that might be accomplished.

But as a journalist, I understand why printing one's race is such a divisive issue. When one particular race continues to show up in police reports and mass e-mails, it builds a negative stereotype that permeates the campus. Students suddenly become more aware and paranoid when they are walking down the street next to an African American person than when walking next to a white person, since African American was the race being reported most prominently.

I've seen this issue firsthand. During my tenure as an editor at The Daily Illini, I've assigned many stories about crime this year. I've reported on several more about crime. I've checked police blotters and followed up with officials about criminal trends and problems. And I've found that racial identification is one of the most contentious areas I've encountered. As a journalist, I know it's always important to stress fair, accurate, and balanced reporting. But it's extremely difficult to do so when it comes to race. Not publishing race in a crime story could lead to complaints that you're not telling people everything they need to know, but publishing race could lead to accusations that you're being racist and perpetuating stereotypes.

When I'm publishing this information, I've found it best to use my editorial discretion. If it's important to the story to reveal the race of a person, then I'd say it might be in the public's best interest to publish. For example, what Keith Woods, former dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute says about racial identification is pretty well in line with my journalistic ideals: make it relevant to the story. If the story is about race, and race is at the center of a dispute, then it is important. But if there is nothing to be gained by revealing those facts about a person, it is irrelevant. If a crime was caused because of race — whether it be a hate crime or otherwise — or whether racial factors are used in conjunction with other identifying features (an eye patch or gold tooth, for example), then it may be acceptable for publication.

Otherwise, racial references can go horribly awry when used incorrectly. The media have a strong impact on what people are guided to believe. If you publish race for no specific reason, people may think that it suddenly is important to consider race when it might not be.

Being a journalist in this situation is really just a matter of being responsible about what you publish, and keeping in mind that you are a speaker for an entire audience – not just yourself.