Look at this detailed description of a robbery suspect: White male, 5 feet 6 to 5 feet 8 inches tall, late ’20s to early ’30s, short blond hair, blue eyes, wearing a red and black checkered flannel shirt with a white T-shirt under it, blue jeans, white tennis shoes or light brown boots and a black baseball cap.
Now delete the unchangeable characteristics and look at what’s left: skin color, a height range, an age range and blue eyes. Hair? A box of cheap dye can alter it. Shoes and clothing? As easy to change as, well, shoes and clothing.
But the four unchangeable characteristics are enough to make this description publishable, according to the Missourian’s standard, which requires three. In keeping with our philosophy of transparency about what we do, it’s time we explained this standard and why we think publishing a description like “black male, about six feet tall,” doesn’t help the public help police catch suspects and serves no community interest.
It’s not a standard everyone in our newsroom agrees upon, and it elicits the occasional outraged e-mail from readers. For example, after we reported on a particularly brutal home invasion in north Columbia in which a 16-year-old girl was raped and sodomized, a reader demanded to know why we hadn’t disclosed that the suspects were black. The tone of the e-mail revealed the writer’s motivation: for us to become complicit in his racist view that all criminals are black, or that all blacks are criminal.
But publishing a description of a suspect as black or white — if that’s all we have — falls far short of our standard of providing information that will help the community assist police in locating criminal suspects. It doesn’t narrow down the population to a few possible people. Add height, and it still isn’t useful. Add more specific information about the lightness or darkness of a complexion and a scar shaped like a “z” on the left cheek and you’ve got something unchangeable, useful and worth publishing.
Unfortunately, we rarely receive descriptions that detailed, and it’s easy to understand why: Victims and witnesses of crime are often so traumatized by what they have seen or experienced, they can’t always recall specific details. When they can, and when police release them to us, we make them available because doing so helps us do public safety reporting that truly serves the public.
Katherine Reed has been the public safety editor for the Missourian for the past three years.