The Politics of Crime Reporting

A second look: Should newspapers reveal the race of perps and their victims?

The Los Angeles Times is causing hubbub on its website because of a data-gathering project, the Homicide Report, that’s keeping track of every killing in Los Angeles County. Information being collected includes the method of death, the day on which the murder occurred (Sunday’s most popular), and the race of both victim and perpetrator. This last category has Times readers up in arms, since it’s been the paper’s policy for years not to include that information in its print editions. One upset reader commented, “The ancestry of the person does not need to be identified unless it is somehow relevant to the news. This seems like a blatant way to try to associate Latinos with crime.”

Newspapers everywhere wrestled with the report-the-race-or-not issue a few decades back, when they pretty much all routinely published the racial identity of victims and evildoers. The movement not to do so seemed way overly PC to a lot of people — how could a newspaper not include such basic information as whether a killer was black or white? But times change, and so do conventions, and now most newspapers don’t include racial information when a crime takes place, unless there’s a compelling reason to.

I remember thinking, as a young adult, that it was stupid for newspapers to possess vital information like a killer’s race and not share it with the public. Why provide the color of a missing murderer’s jacket and pants but not that of his skin? For much of my generation, and even more so that of my parents, race was the first thing we noticed about a person. It was how we divided the world: into black and white.

Not long ago, I happened upon my old Nancy Drew books, that I’d lovingly preserved from my childhood and tried to pass along to my daughter when she was a tween. She was polite about it, but she found them unreadable. As much as I’d loved those books, they were impossibly antiquated, with their talk of “chums” and “sleuthing” and Nancy’s blue coupe and a black servant referred to as “lovable old Beulah” serving up biscuits and sweet potatoes. And you know what? The bad guys Nancy was zipping around trying to catch were always swart-skinned and greasy-haired. They may not all have been black, but they were always Other, as the concept is termed in my daughter’s women’s studies classes in college: not white, not Wasp, not well-off, not us.

It appeared to be such a small, illogical step at the time, to lose those racial identifiers from newspapers. (And the Times’s explanation for why it’s including the information now sounds downright naive: Homicide Report editor Megan Garvey says, “We think it’s important to shine a light on how some groups, particularly young black men, are disproportionately the victims of homicide.” Um. And the perpetrators, too?) I’ll say this, though: Race isn’t the first thing my kids register when they meet someone new. That seems like a giant step to me.