San Diego shooting and race

Journalism Thoughts

The reporting on race in crime stories is generally a fraught thing, and for good reason. For the most part, talking about someone’s race — especially a suspect being sought by the police — is generally way too broad without other markers. One example I give in class is this seemingly innocuous sentence: “Police said the suspect is a Latino male.”

If you run through you mind the people who fit the description “Latino male,” half of Miami-Dade County is now a potential suspect.

So, I was initially taken aback by this following sentence, published by CNN this morning.

The shooting victims were identified only as four black women, two black men and a Hispanic man. Their names were not immediately released.

This story was about a shooting during a pool party in an upscale apartment complex in La Jolla, near UC San Diego. The victims, as noted, are of color; the apparent shooter, who was killed by police, was white. One woman, not including the shooter, died, while the others were injured.

[As a side note: CNN has a one dead and six wounded, while the LA Times has one dead and seven wounded, a mini-clinic on what happens when reporting breaking news. CNN, for its part, has the most updated story, noting it previously had the LAT numbers, indicating that the police provided consistent, if incorrect, information last night.]

Similarly, the LA Times also makes note of the race of the alleged shooter and victims, writing:

The reports were grim: A white man wearing brown shorts was armed with a gun and shooting at what two witnesses described as approximately 30 people around the pool, most of them African American.

Seven people, all adults, were hit by gunfire: four black women, two black men and a Latino man. A woman later died at the hospital.

Though I have not made a comprehensive check, I note that the San Diego Union-Tribune and USA Today also noted the race of the victims and the alleged shooter.

It is certainly not possible to know why all of these newspapers (and their editors) decided to unreservedly state the races of everyone involved, but here are a few of the thoughts that may have gone into this decision, ranked from best to worse:

  • Level of detail: The amount of information provided by witnesses and police, including what the alleged shooter was wearing, his name and the fact he was a resident of the complex, made it clear the story was only talking about one “white man” and not a multitude.
  • Lack of harm: The alleged shooter is dead. No suspect is being sought by police and, therefore, no chance an uninvolved person, who shares this person’s race, will be unjustly accused based on the color of their skin.
  • The dead have few rights: Because the supposed shooter is no longer among the living, worries about his ability to get a fair trial is moot. In general, this is why you will see legitimate journalism institutions decline to name victims of rape, but no hesitation about naming the victim of a murder (and, in general, even a rape/murder).
  • Strangeness: Stories of random interracial shootings are (thankfully) very rare. However, that makes this story far more interesting than it would be if this man shot up a bunch of white people at the same complex. At the very least, it would not have become a national story. But the fact that something was interracial does not mean, by definition, it was “race-related.” It is way too easy to conflate the two.
  • The herd: Even if one editor somewhere felt a twinge about reporting on the races involved — ┬ábecause, say, police have made it very clear that the┬ámotivation for the shooting is still being determined — he or she would be stuck. Why? Because every other outlet had decided to include that detail, any outlier publication not doing so looks either uninformed or as though they were intentionally hiding something. The latter is bad; the former is far worse.

Note that the first three are about the race of the alleged shooter (why I’m using “alleged” so much is a topic for another post). Only the last two involve publishing the races of all involved and they are, in my mind, the least justifiable reasons to publish the races. Arguably, of course, it would be difficult to write about one without the other.

On the whole, though, this was not a close call. The overwhelming public interest, and the fact the information about the shooter was rock solid, overrides concerns that the stories are shading this tragedy as racially motivated without (as yet) evidence.

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