Though the race of the robber was listed on the report as black, The Star did not include that description in its article, first published online Monday and then in Tuesday’s print edition.
A reader asked last week if race was omitted because the newspaper is being “politically correct.”
My response was that The Star’s policy on racial identifiers is to include them only when they are useful or otherwise put a story into deeper context.
The Associated Press Stylebook, one of the guides journalists rely on, suggests race is worth mentioning for “suspects sought by the police or missing person cases using police or other credible, detailed descriptions. Such descriptions apply for all races.” It concludes, “The racial reference should be removed when the individual is apprehended or found.”
This can often be a judgment call. One could argue that the description of clothing in the case of the bank robber might make one other detail – race – worth including in the immediate reporting Monday afternoon, the time when the man was presumably closest to the scene of the crime. It’s also likely that scores of people in Oxford were wearing similar clothing on Monday afternoon.
Of course, as time passed, it’s safe to assume the suspect changed clothes, though not skin color. Thus by the next day and the days following, a black male is not much to go on when conducting a search.
The question for journalists, like it is for many items we deal with, is context and relevance. Will the information serve the public? Or will it do little more than confirm stereotypes?
Many readers weighed in on a 4,400-word profile of Anniston City Councilman Ben Little. Reporter Cameron Steele’s article on the controversial politician published on April 1.
A recent note to the newsroom from a former Anniston Star subscriber described the profile as “totally repugnant,” a point other writers of letters to the editor have made.
The reason the newspaper decided to look closely into Little’s background is because his tenure in elected office has been so controversial. It’s easily argued that Little’s frequent public disputes with city staff and council colleagues as well as his frequent lawsuits qualify him as a central figure in Anniston politics, for either good or ill depending on your point of view.
For the record, Little sued this newspaper for defamation in a case that was decided in The Star’s favor last year.
Applying the old saw that all publicity is good publicity, some readers suggest that the lengthy feature on Little plays into what they see as a manipulative game that unnecessarily divides the city.
Quite simply, The Star’s editors and Steele set out to learn more about Little, his background in South Carolina, his service in the U.S. Army and his dealings as a pastor and politician in Anniston.
Like the life story of most people, there was some good and there was some bad. Some readers might prefer to consider Little’s notable rise through the ranks of the Army or his dedication to his flock, even when stationed far from Anniston. Little’s insults and bullying of city staff might capture the attention of others. Our mission was to serve journalism by reporting on a key newsmaker.
The Star is almost 10 months into its new online commenting system. From the newsroom’s perspective, we are generally pleased with the new format, which is enabled through the social media site Facebook.
Our aim was to end the use of anonymous commenting. We found that allowing the cloak of anonymity gave some commenters the feeling that they could say anything they wanted without consequences. Before early July, when The Star instituted Facebook commenting, the site was littered with abusive attacks, foul language and petty sniping among commenters.
Facebook-commenting hasn’t eliminated the problem, but it has sharply reduced it.
The setup for commenting at annistonstar.com is relatively easy, especially if you already have a Facebook account. If you don’t, registration details are available at www.Facebook.com.
While we’re on the subject, allow me to restate our rules for commenting. Commenters must have a Facebook account and must not engage in personal attacks, name-calling, off-topic discussions or infringement of copyrighted material.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.