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How we talk about race: a look into how journalists approach issues of reporting race in crime journalism

October will mark one year since the death of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend, Melvin Rowland.

During the search for Rowland — before the release of his identity — the police put out a description of the suspect through an alert by the U of U. The description stated, “Suspect: Black male, 37 years old, 6’3″, 250 lbs, wearing a gray beanie, black pants, white shoes and a white hoodie.” 

When stories like this break, it’s the job of the journalist to make decisions about what parts of the description to report and what parts to exclude, particularly when it comes to the race of the suspect. Journalists must consider the consequences of releasing a description that could be too vague or lead to false identifications, such as in the case of a police officer who pointed a gun at a 10-year-old boy in West Bountiful, Utah, while searching for suspects.

Journalists often struggle with the issue of choosing what information is relevant and what information is problematic or potentially harmful.

The decision to include race is often an automatic decision, according to Dr. Kim Zarkin, chair of the communication department at Westminster College. Journalists typically try to get as much information as possible and aren’t taught to think about relevance.

“The thing people need to understand about journalism is that it’s rarely a conspiracy,” Zarkin said. “All of the problems in journalism are happening because of unconscious things.” 

Zarkin said the issue in crime reporting is that people of color are often the only ones that have their race identified.

“We rarely identify white people as being white,” Zarkin said. “People who are not white are almost always identified.”

This selective identification of race has caused a skewed perception of who commits crime, according to Zarkin.

“There are a lot of people who believe only people of color commit crime because we don’t identify white people,” Zarkin said. “We just assume white as the default.”

According to Zarkin, how a journalist approaches race comes back to how they were trained to think about race as a detail and whether or not they think about the larger problems of including race.

This is an issue that journalists are beginning to think about more, according to Paighten Harkins, a breaking news, crime and court reporter at The Salt Lake Tribune

“Just even through the last few years a ton more people are thinking about it,” Harkins said. “I know they’re definitely happening in this newsroom especially when it comes to things like when are we going to use a person’s name, when are we going to use their mugshot, those are definitely bigger conversations.”

She did say, however, that she didn’t have to think about making decisions surrounding this until after college, and feels like she didn’t have enough conversations tackling issues of race in reporting.

When making these decisions herself, she said it depends on how much information the police give out.


Reporter Paighten Harkins works at her desk in The Salt Lake Tribune August 29. Harkins said while journalists are beginning to consider the implications of reporting race, it is not something that journalists are educated about enough.
(Photo Credit: Marina McTee)

“If they literally just say, ‘We have people calling in saying that this was a black man that did this crime,’ and that’s the only information they give you, I’m not inclined to report that,” Harkins said. “Because how does that narrow down the suspect pool?”

According to Harkins, reporting on a description that’s too vague can be dangerous and is something she tries to prevent.

For example, Harkins said a suspect description that only says to lookout for a black man isn’t helpful and could also get people in trouble.

“Somebody might call the police on somebody that doesn’t deserve to have the police called on them just by virtue of being black,” Harkins said.

Deciding whether or not to include race in police reporting is often situational, according to Harkins.

“It’s kind of a case by case thing which is why it’s obviously incredibly important for people to understand why journalists are making these decisions,” Harkins said.

Emily Calhoun, a senior neuroscience major, said she follows the news pretty closely and knows a little about journalistic protocols, but not as much as she’d like to. She also said that she knows there are a lot of problems with how journalists report on race.

“We have a lot of problems because people are selectively reporting and selectively listening to certain issues and that gets certain people in trouble that really shouldn’t be,” Calhoun said.

Calhoun said she thinks journalists can do better by getting a wider range of sources and connecting singular issues to greater problems. 

Andy Larsen, a Tribune reporter and Westminster alum also said he didn’t think his education adequately prepared him to report on issues of race. 

“The classes themselves did very little to prepare myself for writing or dealing with issues of race in the real world,” Larsen said in an email. “On the other hand, despite Westminster’s relative lack of diversity, there was still enough of it that the social atmosphere on campus did teach me about racial issues in a number of ways.”

According to Larsen, who graduated with a math degree in 2012, some classes discussed racial issues but it was never at the forefront of the conversation.

Larsen also said some journalists do consider the implications of reporting race and some don’t. He said he thinks conversations around this are becoming more common in newsrooms.

Even though these conversations are becoming more common Dr. Kathleen McElroy, director of the school of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, said journalists are still including race when they shouldn’t.

“In the last 40 years, journalistic bodies have said […] ‘Oh no you shouldn’t do it it’s not worth it and it taints the community, and it serves no purpose,’” McElroy said. “Yet people still do it. Publications still do it.”

According to McElroy, reporting on race without thinking about the wider implications has consequences such as in the case of Susan Smith.

Smith claimed that a black man robbed her and kidnapped her children. She later confessed to killing her children.

“In the meantime they were rounding up black men,” McElroy said.

There have also been cases of police doctoring mugshots to fit witness descriptions.

“So the whole issue of what a person looks like has legal and journalistic ethical implications,” McElroy said.

According to McElroy, including identifying information requires more thought and journalists should stop and think before doing so.

 McElroy also said journalists don’t have to follow what the police say.

“The police can say it’s a black man, or a dark-skinned person […] The police have to do what the police do, but that doesn’t mean we have to report it because we’ve got different standards.”

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