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When we include suspect descriptions in our reporting, and when we don’t

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Posted at 7:52 AM, Jun 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-23 08:10:45-04

We’re sometimes criticized by readers for not including descriptions of possible suspects in a crime. Some of that criticism is offered in good faith. Some of it is veiled or outright bigotry. Whatever the case, we strive to be transparent in our reporting, so we’ll explain how we report these details.

On the News 5 website we publish specific descriptions, with identifying details, when alerting the public to potential danger, when helping to locate a missing person and when police ask for the public’s help in the apprehension of an individual.

If a description is vague, and it could literally describe thousands or millions of people, we don’t share it.

In other words: Race and gender alone are not enough.

This is not new.

It has been our policy for the last few years.

What is a specific description? It would include identifying factors such as tattoos and scars, as well as clothes, type of vehicle, etc.

Every story is a little different. Sometimes police give us detailed information because they talked to a witness who saw someone clearly. Sometimes they don’t get a good description from witnesses, which happens.

When we’re not sure, we have newsroom discussions about whether there are enough layers of specificity to include in the report.

OK, this is a good place to ask: Why share suspect descriptions at all?

One of the cornerstone topics of local journalism is public safety, which we cover for many reasons, foremost among them: to publicly document the activities of the police, in our role as watchdog, as well as to alert the community that criminal activity has occurred. Providing a detailed description of a possible suspect dovetails with both.

But news organizations need not do so reflexively. Some newsrooms thoughtlessly repeat whatever details officials provide them. We prefer to consider the importance of a piece of information first. This is why, for example, we changed the entire manner in which we publish coronavirus data from the state.

RELATED: Why we stopped publishing Ohio’s case and death numbers immediately

It’s not that we want to withhold information from the public. Far from it. We spend our days – our lives – trying to extract the tiniest bits of information from unwilling government agencies. Our investigators have been waiting on some public records requests for years, and we’ve gone to court to extricate them. We’re in the information-sharing business, but that does not mean we must or should share all we gather.

For example, last year we told you why we don’t report police scanner traffic. In that post, I touched on the notion that proper journalism sometimes involves collecting information but not disseminating it.

As I wrote then: Yes, it is publicly available information, but as journalists it’s our job to weigh the value of that information and determine what, if anything, to do with it, not to mindlessly report everything we hear.

We don’t report on scanner traffic because relying only on those initial reports increases the likelihood that the story will be incomplete, untrue or devoid of what is so essential in any breaking news story -- context.

It would be irresponsible if we did not, as I wrote, “weigh the value of information.”

When it comes to descriptions of individuals, value matters.

In the case of police, they are often relaying what they’ve been told by witnesses, and as a result they commonly give suspect descriptions as vague as, for example, “white female with brown hair.”

As experienced journalists who come from a variety of backgrounds, who have discussed the coverage of diverse communities in our newsroom, we’re aware of the effects that our reporting can have.

Let’s say a significant volume of our stories describe possible criminals as “white women with brown hair.” After a while, some readers might come to believe that white women with brown hair as a group represent a personal or societal threat.

When a news organization offers only racial and gender identifiers as part of its news reports for years, or decades, what is the more likely outcome: that these extremely vague descriptions will better inform the public, or that we will be a party to unintentionally perpetuating stereotypes? In our judgment, sharing vague descriptions that are of little value repeatedly to a mass audience does more harm than good.

I can hear some of you now. “You’re keeping information from the public!” Incorrect. We’re simply not sharing it. That information is still available.

You may desire that information for perfectly good reasons. If you live in the community where the crime occurred and want to know more about what happened, or if you think you may be able to catch the bad guy, you can reach out to police and ask. If the description is contained in a police report, it’s available to the public.

When that description is not specific, though, this is the line you will see in our stories: “A specific description of the individual was not provided by police.”

Which is the truth.

And if you’re really dying to know whether or not a suspected criminal was black or white, and this particular crime does not affect you in any possible way, instead of asking yourself what someone looks like, please stop and consider why you need to know at all.

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Learn more about how we report the news here.

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Joe Donatelli is the digital director at News 5 Cleveland. Follow him on Facebook @joedonatelli1 and Twitter @joedonatelli. Have a question about how we report the news? Email joe.donatelli@wews.com.