Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Identifying crime victims by race or sexuality

When the first reports of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando first appeared, I was surprised to see the club identified as a "gay nightclub." Throughout my newspaper career, I was taught — and taught reporters who worked for me — that irrelevant identifications should not be included in news stories.

For too long, newspapers had racially identified people in news stories, obituaries and in other places as "colored" or "Negro." This was a blatantly prejudicial means of separating people, especially in crime reports. When the unfairness of this irrelevance was identified and banned in most newspapers, other identifications were added to the ban on race or color. We didn't identify people as white, black, Jewish, Hispanic, immigrant, married, homosexual, straight or whatever unless it was relevant to the news story. Sometimes, race and other identifications are relevant to the story, but usually they are not.

In those first reports of the Orlando shooting, the relevance of Pulse as a LGBT hangout was not apparent, but it appeared in nearly every news report. Later, when the shooter was identified as someone who hated gays or who had struggled with his own sexuality, the relevance became clear and the identification of Pulse as a gay club was fully justified.

But those first reports, and the pervasiveness of the identification of the club as a gay club, made me wonder: Is there an exception to the usual rule about not identifying people by race, creed, color, etc. when sexual orientation is involved? The crush of the 24-hour news cycle can sometimes blur the rules of journalism, and it's possible that's what happened here. Some reporter or reporters might have assumed the club patrons' sexuality was important and included in an early report, and that addition would be picked up by others. Or it may be that reporters made the assumption that this shooting had specifically targeted LGBT people, an assumption that appears to have been correct.

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