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April 18, 2013 at 6:31 AM

Media’s description of search for ‘dark skinned’ Boston Marathon suspect shows ineptitude around race

The scene following an explosion at the 2013 Boston Marathon. (Photo by Ben Thorndike / AP)

The scene following an explosion at the 2013 Boston Marathon. (Photo by Ben Thorndike / AP)

CNN has egg on its face after the network and other media outlets falsely reported in multiple stories a suspect had been arrested in the Boston Marathon explosions, summed up in a Tampa Bay Times story.  In a competitive media environment, reporters naturally want to get the news first, but first they should get it right.

There are lessons to learn in CNN’s other big faux pas of the day: Reporter John King said law enforcement officers were looking for a suspect, “a dark-skinned individual.” The description ended there, making it about as useful as saying police were looking for a person with two eyes and a nose, wrote the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple on his blog.

King may have been concerned about the flimsy description. Reporting on-air for CNN, he said: “I want to be very careful about this because people get very sensitive when you say these things. I was told by one of these sources, who is a law enforcement official, that this was a dark-skinned male. The official used some other words, I’m not going to repeat them until we get more information because of the sensitivities. There are some people that will take offense even at that. ”

The only offense I took was professionally.

A reporter’s work is incomplete if the only description they have for a potential suspect – particularly for a crime on the magnitude of the Boston Marathon bombing – is ”dark-skinned.” Time is of the essence. Other U.S. cities and national landmarks have been placed on high alert. If a vigilant public is to help law enforcement put together the pieces of this puzzle, they must have full descriptions, which can include race but must include more.  Journalists need to be careful when invoking race, ethnicity or religion during reporting, according to the National Association of Black Journalists, a national professional organization with more than 3,000 members.

NABJ released a statement yesterday that reminded journalists reporting on crimes to use highly detailed descriptions of suspects sought by police, including race. “Be sure the description is properly attributed. Do not use descriptions that include only a few items or are vague, such as tall, dark clothes,” the organization said.

The issue is not only about African Americans but about how America views crimes and those they believe commit them.

“There is a double standard when it comes to American Muslims and acts of terrorism in the United States,” Arsalan Iftikhar, the author, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com, and senior editor for The Islamic Monthly magazine, wrote in this op-ed for The Seattle Times.

0 Comments | Topics: boston marathon, cnn, media

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