Should police and the media release the ethnicity of unapprehended criminal suspects?

June 13, 2021 • 12:30 pm

To me the answer to the question above is a no-brainer: “Of course.” If someone who did a crime is on the loose, then anything that might help apprehend him (most criminals are men) could be useful. That includes height, weight, presence of glasses, facial hair, clothing, and ethnicity. In fact, of all of these identifiers, ethnicity is the hardest to change if you’re fleeing the cops.

And yet the media often (as in this case) quails at specifying the ethnicity of perps, as if somehow that would lead to stereotyping. But I don’t see how it could, unless it simply reinforces those bigots who would say, “See, another X did a crime.” But bigots don’t become more bigoted that way, and it seems to me that the advantage of helping police apprehend a criminal outweighs any considerations of reinforcing racism.

In fact, in this case the newspaper at issue refused to report any identifying information (though clearly race was the hot button) even though the cops already had. And they explained that they left out the information because it might “reinforce stereotypes.” Right then and there you know the criminal is black or Hisptanic.

The incident was the mass shooting in Austin Texas on Friday night, a shooting that injured 30 people, two critically. Here’s the first report (now archived) of two suspects on the loose from the Austin American-Statesman (click on screenshot)

Notice that this was published Saturday morning.  At the bottom of the article, however, is this “editor’s note”:

But in fact the description isn’t too vague to help cops apprehend the suspect, or the public to identify him.  Below is the bulletin issued yesterday morning by the Austin Police Department with the “vague description of the suspected shooter” (click on screenshot). It’s not that vague, and says that one suspect is “described as a black male, with dread locks [sic], wearing a black shirt and a skinny build.”  Surely this is of value in helping apprehend somebody. If someone is caught but doesn’t have dreadlocks, it would be easy to find out if he had them right before the shooting.

The paper clearly saw the police report, which came out the same day as the article above, and I strongly suspect that the paper didn’t describe the one suspect (not yet apprehended when the article came out) not because of vagueness, but because the suspect was an African-American. In fact, I know this is the reason because the newspaper says so: publication of the description “could be harmful in perpetuating stereotypes.”  As I said, this is a strong clue that the suspect is either black or Hispanic, so the disclaimer above is doubly ludicrous.

Here’s the police report.

When the suspect was arrested, a later report in the paper (curiously, with the same time of filing) still does not give details of who the suspect is (which is now less relevant except for those who keep track of race). But it has exactly the same disclaimer at the bottom! That makes even less sense.

While there’s no pressing need for a paper to describe someone who’s apprehended, I highly doubt that they’re withholding information because it could “perpetuate harmful stereotypes.” Instead, they’re withholding it because they think the paper will look racist if it identifies an apprehended suspect as an African American.

And their claim that “We will update our reporting” goes up there with “the check is in the mail” as One Big Lie. Remember, we’re talking about a mass shooter here, not a shoplifter or petty burglar.

The updated report:

I’ve seen the unwillingness to identify the ethnicity of unapprehended suspects in other media reports, but that often involves simply omitting identifying details rather than making an explicit statement about why they’re doing it.

We’ve come to a pretty pass when the fear of being called “racist” is so strong that it keeps journalists from giving information that might reduce crime. But sometimes criminal justice must outweigh social justice, particularly when the latter is—as it is here—misguided.

21 thoughts on “Should police and the media release the ethnicity of unapprehended criminal suspects?

  1. I think, for me, the important question would be whether the description seems to be accurate. Which, I suppose, must be the case if the police are releasing it. It isn’t as if they are reposting a Nextdoor rant or some such (one would hope). I wonder whether there was fear, in this case, of armed Texans taking it upon themselves to go catch (and potentially shoot) the suspect.

  2. I have followed for a few years the obvious, but largely unarticulated, protocol that legacy/mainstrem media use in releasing information on suspects. What it comes down to is that if the suspect is white, it is blasted from a foghorn. If the suspect is not white, especially black, media will usually try to obscure it.

    And alot of people are much of aware of this protocol from the comments accompanying newsarticles, in fact, the lack of description is taken to mean non-white (black). But the result is a big hit to media’s own credibility. Here are a couple of comments attached to the latest Austin-American-Statesman:

    “When you have 53% of the crime committed by 3% of the population (black males age 16-35) you have a 53/47 chance of guessing the race and age of the perpetrator.”

    “Black, skinny build, dreadlocks. See, that wasn’t that hard.”

    BTW, you can Google this event and see how few in media are paying attention to it.

    (The Austin American-Statesman) has dropped the paywall for articles on this event, so you can read comments for yourself.

  3. Seems very strange. When trying to ID a probably criminal you should give everything you have. If you have a photo, show that. If the guy was fat would you withhold that for offending fat people? Texas is or going to put through additional gun legislation to allow anyone to buy with no requirements other than they are breathing and have the money to buy. Then open carry with no permit, nothing. Just the way Madison intended.

  4. This sort of thing is counter-productive, since, from now on, every time the paper reports a crime with no mention of the suspect’s ethnicity, everyone will think “he’s black”.

    There was a time a few years back where, after certain terrorism incidents, the mainstream British press would omit any mention of the suspect’s background and motive, and everyone immediately concluded a link to a certain religion (because if it had been anything else you could be sure that that would have been highlighted).

    1. everyone will think “he’s black”

      Or whatever their least favorite minority group is. It’s ironic that in attempting to not perpetuate a certain stereotype, they’re actually perpetuating all stereotypes.

  5. Indeed. It’s also reprehensible for the press to expunge the racial identity of suspects because they’re being selective about it, i.e. discriminatory themselves in an attempt to avoid discrimination or evoke it in others. There is a risk though of enabling vigilante justice or prejudice against certain demographics, right? I’m reminded of the spike in sexual assaults in Germany and England attributed primary to Muslim male immigrants which their media refused to acknowledge. That was a scandal.

  6. Below is the latest….

    BTW, it it customary not to release any information regarding identity if the person is a juvenile (apart from “juvenile”)? Because it seems to me that I have seen many cases in which juveniles are identitified and photographed and appeared as part of news stories…..

    “A suspect arrested in connection with the mass shooting on Austin’s Sixth Street that wounded 14 is a juvenile, and authorities Sunday were still considering what charges he will face, officials told the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV.

    Police and prosecutors have up to 48 hours from the time of a person’s arrest to file charges against him. The suspect’s age was not immediately released, and because he is not an adult, his identity and court records in the case likely will remain confidential.”

  7. Jerry, it’s easy to read your second sentence as you advocating for a totalitarian police state. Might want to overthink that intro.

    1. Doesn’t sound to me like he’s advocating that at all. Especially if you’re a regular reader.

  8. If I were the suspect, the description would be ‘overweight, old, white lady.’ Media would have to drop overweight (weight-shaming), old (age discrimination), white (race discrimination – oh, wait, that’s only for other colors) and lady (sex discrimination). So I guess they’d report that police were searching for the perpetrator. All this fear of stereotyping would make me feel that I’ve lost a big chunk of my individuality. Finally, to be consistent, the media shouldn’t print my booking photo if I were arrested.

    At least the police won’t need a tip line.

  9. I think the problem is that papers often only report the sex and ethnicity of the suspect and not in the context of identifying them. Instead, it seems a corollary to the “if it bleeds, it ledes” mantra. The editors know that readers are hyper-conscious of race, so they use it to feed the beast. Of course, sometimes a suspect’s race is just part of a call for the community’s help in identification.

    1. This is the issue. When the purpose is to help aprehend the suspect, you publish as much information as you can. That can include ethnicity, but also clothes (at the time of the crime), hair style, weight, age, identifying marks like tattoos and earrings, facial hair, scars, and any photos or sketches that can help.

      News articles don’t often give as detailed information about the suspect. If the description is merely “black, male, 20s” or “white, male, 30s”, that does not help at all in apprehending an individual — unless your goal were be to stop and question every black man in his 20s and every white man in his 30s. Our country has a history of doing the former, but not so much the latter.

      Without that additional identifying information, listing only race and age in a news report would serve no legitimate purpose beyond profiling, and the press would be right to leave it out.

      (Demographics research into crime statistics by ethnicity doesn’t rely on anecdotal sources like news reports, and so would also not be served by a news report listing someone’s race.)

  10. I found it appalling how casual US news handle information of suspects, and how it goes from there. After all, they have yet to be found guilty. Matt Taibbi has added this in part to the final rule of his “Ten Rules of Hate”, in his book “Hate Inc” about US media today.

    The rule is entitled “10. Feel Superior” and is about how US media is designed to show readers and viewers a steady stream of losers, (suspected) criminals and deplorables, or bad parents and such, so that the audience can feel superior. It often stokes racial or class prejudices.

    He cites one former crime beat reporter, who came forward and described the process in a Guardian piece:

    While the minor crime stories churned out by the thousands every day have an enormous, devastating long-term effect on their subjects, all but the most heinous of offenses are simply not worth reporting and are a waste of resources already stretched thin. No one becomes a more informed member of their community after 30 seconds spent reading a story about a homeless woman who shoplifted meat. They just laugh and move on. — Source Hunter Paul, Guardian, 8/2017

  11. First, ethnicity is not race. It’s a cultural category. Race is a biological category, even though it gets blurry at the edges. What you’re talking about is the media reporting the race of suspects.

    Second, this is standard SJW practice when the suspects are not white. When the suspects are white, they prominently declare that fact. When the suspects are non-white, they refer to them generically, carefully avoiding any mention of physical characteristics which would even let you guess the race.

    I don’t think I need to explain why they do this, other than to say it’s definitely not for proper ethical reasons.

  12. Disrupting the continued stereotyping is best done by finding some way to stop the members of the particular group from constantly engaging in the stereotyped activity.
    But they don’t really care about false stereotypes per se, just the ones related to the groups they particularly fetishize.
    I their initial reporting, the Austin media tried to link the violence to the bikers of the Texas Motorcycle Rally, sort of casually, without explicitly claiming that bikers were involved.
    As far as the stereotype is concerned, a bit of looking at data from large cities where offender race is part of the data set, it seems that young Black men are the suspect in 80-98% of urban shootings.

    Chicago, subject of our recent discussion, last published detailed graphs of suspects by crime and race in 2010. At that time, when White people were the largest resident ethnic group, slightly under 4% of murder suspects were White.

    Pattern recognition is a critical human survival trait. I guess the progressive media folks are trying to disrupt people’s recognition of such things. Actually facing, studying, and addressing the root causes of the negative stereotyped behavior is less important than disrupting the stereotypes in people’s minds.
    In some cases, it appears that the behavior by the group in question is counter to the worldview of the progressive reporters. I think it goes beyond shaping public perceptions, and may well so conflict with the reporter’s beliefs that it’s existence must be ignored or denied. Otherwise, they might have a crisis of faith.

  13. It of course also extends into which stories the papers will report at all. Most of the time when the mainstream media won’t cover a story (e.g. Cannon Hinnant, Daisey Paulsen, etc.) you can guess why, but people can always claim it’s for some other, legitimate reason. (“It’s just not newsworthy.”)

    In rare cases you can see the media reaction change in real time as some new (and race-related) fact comes out. You could see this with the Jazmin Barnes case, the seven-year old black girl who was shot, where the family reported the shooter as a white man and said they could see his blue eyes (in the dark). This was national news, with pretty much every major outlet writing story after story about it. The New York Times alone wrote 12 pieces on it, blaming white people and white men as groups. Then it turned out that the shooter was actually black, and – *poof* – the story vanished from the news. What happened? Suddenly it’s not newsworthy anymore? Many of those outlets didn’t even bother to publish a correction…

    1. In the spirit of a halfhearted defense of coverage levels determined by race, I want to propose that “news” is new and noteworthy information.
      There seem to be a lot of people imagining that they live in a world where White lynch mobs roam at will, and police have declared an open season on Black folks.
      But in the real world, Black people attacking other Black people, or even attacking White people, is too common an occurrence to be seen as noteworthy. When an interracial attack by a White person occurs, it is in fact an unusual event.
      Plus, it fits with the narrative the far left folks really want to believe in. So of course it gets coverage.

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