By Averi Harper | The Daily Tar Heel Published April 21, 2013 in Opinion
After four days of poring over an overwhelming amount of tips, putting the city on lockdown and executing a frantic search, the police have a teenage suspect for the Boston Marathon bombings in custody.
But in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, a host of mistakes made by the media misled the public and, arguably, even put some people in danger.
Some media outlets wrongly reported that a suspect in the bombings had been arrested; one put a photo on a newspaper cover focusing on two “suspicious” individuals who were later found to be not associated with the bombings and another outlet reported that the suspect was a “dark-skinned male.”
The use of the vague physical descriptor “dark-skinned male” implied that the suspect was a man of color and, because it didn’t specify the race of the individual, it didn’t actually provide any additional clues as to who the suspect might be. The assertion that the suspect in the bombings was a “dark-skinned male” only put many men that could fit that ambiguous description at risk of undeserved discrimination at the hands of a traumatized and frightened public.
In a city like Boston, which has a history of racial division, discrimination and violence, the use of a vague descriptor like “a dark-skinned male” is largely irresponsible. It connotes a man of color, and whether or not that implies an African-American, Latino or a man of Middle Eastern descent is unclear. The phrase is so ambiguous that, ethically, the decision to use it to describe a suspect in an attack that has drawn international attention was both inappropriate and offensive.
In a recent statement, the National Association of Black Journalists warned media outlets to be careful when mentioning race in coverage when it isn’t vital to the story.
And the suspect in custody, 19-year-old Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, ended up being a white man, proving premature claims false. This sort of disregard for accuracy by the media is unacceptable.
This isn’t the first time crime in the city of Boston has been wrongly blamed on people of color.
In 1989, Charles Stuart claimed his pregnant wife was killed and he was robbed and shot by a black man while driving through an African-American neighborhood of Boston.
Men in the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston were unnecessarily searched in a manhunt for the perpetrator of what, at the time, appeared to be the targeting of an affluent white couple in a poor black neighborhood. In the end, it was revealed that Stuart had fabricated the entire story and blamed a nonexistent black man to cover up that he’d killed his wife.
We must be sensitive to the use of race as a physical descriptor in the coverage of not only infamous terrorist attacks, but also in the daily coverage of news.