Coverage of local crime tends to bring out reader scrutiny. People tell me often they consider these incidents among the most important things The Kansas City Star covers, because they have a direct impact on Kansas Citians’ day-to-day lives.
In today’s paper was a story about the shooting death Sunday of Raymon K. Thomas near Lamar Avenue and West 94th Terrace in Overland Park.
Emailer Kathy Murdock wrote, in part: “After reading the story, I found it was definitely a targeted murder in broad daylight, a bit more than “man shot, killed,” as the print headline read.
“Here's the rub,” she continued. “When reporting shootings on the east side (the murder zip code) the language is much more violent, i.e. murder, gunned down, drive-by, etc. But this Overland Park murder is reported as ‘shot, killed.’”
She said she was “just pointing out that our prejudices can be so subtle. And in the process this language contributes to the continued stereotyping of neighborhoods in Kansas City.” While inarguably subjective, I find those concerns sensitive and worthwhile for journalists. The one caveat here: The headline she referenced was in print, which has extreme demands of economy of space. Sometimes what comes off as brusque is the unavoidable reality of having only so many millimeters to fit the words into.
On a totally different aspect of the same story, multiple readers pointed out a defect in the descriptions of the suspects. The story identifies them as “heavy-set men; the alleged gunman’s head was bald or shaved. The suspects were in a red or maroon late-model Ford sedan with Missouri license plates, witnesses said.”
Why didn’t it mention the suspects’ skin color, asked those readers? The police press release identified them as black, but the story did not.
The Star’s style book has very specific instructions on when to use suspects’ descriptions. It says to include them when these details are available: height, weight, hair color, approximate age and one other distinguishing element such as a noticeable physical attribute (other than eye color), clothing or a vehicle.
So in this case, the style book would actually dictate not to use the descriptions, because they aren’t specific enough.
Is that the right choice? Readers have argued to me that the style book has too many rules here, and that’s valid. But on the other hand, I would ask everyone to pose this question to him- or herself honestly: Would a suspect description such as “a white man in his mid-30s, approximately 6 feet tall” or “an Asian woman in her early 20s, approximately 120 pounds” really help anyone in identifying a suspect on the street?
Especially when you factor in what we know about the notorious unreliability of eyewitness testimony, it isn’t hard to understand why general descriptions aren’t actually helpful. And worse, they can underline negative stereotypes in their very generality. I think the intentions behind writing The Star’s style book’s guidelines were in the right place, even if they ended up too restrictive.