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Is it 'relevant' that James Holmes is white?

July 23, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • James Holmes appears in Arapahoe County District Court on Monday with public defender Tamara Brady.
James Holmes appears in Arapahoe County District Court on Monday with public… (R.J. Sangosti / Associated…)

At the risk of being accused of having an obsession with references to race and ethnicity in journalism,  I want to call attention to a controversy over the fact that some news reports identified James Holmes, the accused shooter in "The Dark Knight Rises" movie theater shootings,  as a white man. (The L.A. Times story did not so describe him.)

This is from Richard Prince’s “Journalisms” feature on the website of the Maynard Institute:

"News consumers learned that the man suspected of shooting 70 people in Aurora, Colo., on Friday was white before they knew his name.

“NPR described the man accused of killing 12 people and injuring at least 58 others as a ‘white male in his early 20s.' On Pacifica Radio's 'Democracy Now,' host Amy Goodman said the gunman was 'believed to be white, about 24 years old....

“Paul Colford, spokesman for the Associated Press, explained to Journalisms at midday,  'I'm told that 'white' was part of the original police description, though that element will be dropped. Race is included when a story contains a racial element, and so far this one apparently has no such element.'"

It's true that most newspaper style guides counsel against identifying crime suspects -- and other people -- by their race, a practice dating to the 1960s.  Before then, it was common for news stories to refer to a suspect, even after they had been captured, as a “Negro man.”  The exception to the modern colorblind policy is when race is “relevant.”

That’s obviously the case in, say, the beating of Rodney King by white police officers or a description of a congressional candidate who is the first African American (or white, though that’s unlikely) to hold a political office. Race is also relevant when the suspect is still at large, though there have been instances of stories that tell the reader to look out for a suspect with “black hair and brown eyes" without mentioning race.

Beyond that, though, relevance is in the eye of the beholder, and readers often behold things differently from the way editors do.

To complicate matters, the same editors who would enforce a ban on racial descriptions in a crime story might nudge a reporter to make clear, indirectly, that the subject of a positive portrayal belongs to an underrepresented group.

Finally there’s the double standard for breaking news and feature stories: Physical description is at a minimum in breaking stories, but when a reporter is in feature mode, quasi-racial descriptions like “the blond, blue-eyed tot” or “the teenager in dreadlocks” come out of the tool kit.

In the case of the Colorado shootings, the arguments for identifying the shooter as white would be:

Readers/listeners are curious, just as they’re curious about whether the shooter was young or old or male or female. The problem with this argument is that for many readers that curiosity is tinged with a kind of prurient racism.

This is a story with anthropological/sociological overtones. One reason readers may have been curious about the race of the shooter was that the supposed rarity of nonwhite serial killers has been a topic of more or less informed discussion for years.

It’s hypocritical for the news media to refrain from identifying a suspect by race and then to publish his picture or provide all sorts of clues (“a typical resident of this working-class, Italian American neighborhood”).

Here’s an excerpt from NPR’s early coverage of the shooting:

"I'm Steve Inkseep. The man in custody for last night's shooting in Aurora, Colorado, was identified by police as James Holmes. He's 24 years old. If you're wondering -- he's white, he's American and, as always, innocent until proven guilty. Throughout this morning we've heard eyewitnesses describe a man who walked into the Century 16 multiplex. He had multiple weapons. He had a gas mask. He stepped into Theater Number 9, which was premiering the latest Batman film, threw some kind of gas canister, it's unclear what, and then opened fire on the audience; a dozen people dead.”

Is this racist? Racially insensitive? Or unobjectionably informative? You tell me.

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