On Aug. 6 in Washington, D.C., a violent brawl broke out among 70 people, most of them teenaged or close to it, at the Gallery Place Metro Station. There were arrests, and several people landed in the hospital. Pitched battle in the usually staid D.C. subways are not daily occurrences, yet the Washington Post apparently found itself short-handed, faint of heart, or both: its initial and follow-up stories on the event had little information. What started the fight? What happened? Who were the combatants? How long did it last?
The Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, investigated and determined that the paper was simply caught shorthanded. One aspect of the story was never specified, however: were the combatants white or black? The Post editor, Robert Pierre, who oversaw the story, told Alexander that the papaer was “worried about hyping a story that involved race.”
What a strange and disturbing thing to say.
If the story was “about race,” why didn’t the Post reporting mention the race of the participants? It being the District, in which the population is overwhelmingly African-American, everyone assumed the brawlers were black youths. If it was a gang of white, that would be news. If it was a battle in which white kids were fighting black kids, that would certainly be news. What does the editor’s comment mean? Honest reporting isn’t hyping, but hiding an element of a story because newspaper staff is worried about how the readers will react to the race of the participants isn’t honest reporting; it is manipulating the news. The Post editor’s statement suggests that his paper’s staff was concerned that white readers would be frightened by the facts of a story that involved race, so, it simply declined to report those facts.
Is it better for readers to just assume the race of the participants? Does the fact that the majority of the young people involved in an episode occurring in an overwhelmingly black city happened to be black really qualify as a racially controversial? Why? Well, we don’t know, because the Washington Post chose not to tell the whole story.
News media have to be sensitive to the tone of any news story involving race, and there clearly are events in which the races of the participants are irrelevant. This wasn’t one of those events by definition: the Post staff saw it as a story that”involved race.” If it involved race, then the Post had an obligation to tell us how.
This is the paper’s function, not to insulate the readers from aspects of stories to which they might react badly, irrationally or unfairly.