Karen Peterson

Peterson: Race isn’t factor in decisions on news coverage

Readers expect us to be consistent in how we cover stories.

Fair enough. That’s our goal, as well.

But not surprisingly, one person’s view of consistency can be different from another’s.

We received several complaints last week about our handling of the beating death of an 88-year-old veteran in Spokane, allegedly at the hands of two teenagers. Why did our first story run on Page A8, they asked, and why didn’t it mention the race of the suspects? After all, the Trayvon Martin death made front-page news, and that story was all about race.

This came in an email from a reader:

“A WWII veteran was murdered. The suspects were black. There were video pictures of them. However TNT says nothing about race. I’ve seen two pieces in the paper that have no picture or any information. The TNT mobile site has a video picture, but I’ve seen more from that series that are much clearer. It’s not clear how any search for the suspects would be helped by ignoring facts about them.

“Compare this to the Zimmerman/Martin case. It was amazing how fast this became a white on black crime. Yes, I agree, both sides in the proceedings agreed it wasn’t racial. However, what still runs on the news?

“It would be a cheap shot but I’ll ask: ‘What if the races were reversed?’ I think we both agree that the race of those involved would be clearly stated.”

Let’s start by agreeing that the killing in Spokane was outrageous and easily a front-page story. However, the way the story broke meant it started as a brief inside the paper.

Killings that occur in Spokane rarely make our paper. When they do, they generally appear inside. A short story with few details about the death of Delbert Belton came across The Associated Press wire late on the day after his death. Our night crew placed it inside the next day’s paper. Pretty standard stuff.

By the following day, more details emerged about the victim and how he died. Police apprehended one of two 16-year-old suspects and said the teens’ motivation was nothing more than robbery. Tragic. That story easily made it to the front page.

Neither AP story identified the race of the suspects. That’s consistent, too, unless a crime appears to be racially motivated. Officials said this one wasn’t.

On the second day, we ran photos of the second suspect online, along with a poster identifying his race, height and eye color. Online, we have the luxury of unlimited space. We would have made room for the pictures in the newspaper, as well, if the manhunt were occurring locally. Race is not a factor in those decisions.

I also looked back through our coverage of the Trayvon Martin death and resulting trial of George Zimmerman. Yes, many of those stories appeared on the front page, and many of them dealt with race.

But they didn’t start out that way.

Our first stories appeared inside the paper and didn’t include the race of the suspect. The story became a racial one when activists accused authorities of not arresting Zimmerman because the victim was black. They marched in Florida to protest.

Admittedly, the actions of activists drove that coverage, but I don’t think news organizations should have ignored people gathering in the streets.

Each news organization must decide how much play to give protests such as these. Certainly some readers will think we underplay or overplay them on any given day.

But in the Spokane case, no one is suggesting the killing was racially motivated. Nor is anyone protesting the authorities’ handling of it. We aren’t hiding their race; neither are we going out of our way to say the suspects are black. Or that the victim was white.

Here’s what I wrote back to the reader:

“It’s pretty simple for us: we include a person’s race in a crime story when race is relevant. That would include when police are trying to find someone. Because this case was outside our community, we didn’t run a physical description of the suspects.

“I think this is a horrific crime because of the senseless brutality against a defenseless man. I don’t much care what race the killers (in this case suspects) are. If the races were reversed, we’d react the same way.

“Our initial stories about the Martin/Zimmerman incident didn’t mention race, either. It was after some racial groups called out the county for not arresting Zimmerman that the case took on racial overtones. It would have been difficult to explain why people were out protesting in Florida without saying what color everyone was because people after the fact made that an issue.

“In this case, they are not.”

All that said, we appreciate the thoughtful notes from readers who ask us these difficult questions. You help to keep us thinking about our coverage.

And we’re glad you care as much about these issues as we do.