News consumers learned that the man suspected of shooting 70 people in Aurora, Colo., on Friday was white before they knew his name.
NPR described the man accused of killing 12 people and injuring at least 58 others as a “white male in his early 20s. “On Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now,” host Amy Goodman said the gunman was “believed to be white, about 24 years old.”
Later, police arrested James Holmes, 24, who is in the process of withdrawing from a neuroscience Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus. And, yes, he is white.
That might have come as a relief to any who feared that he might be African American, like the D.C. snipers, who terrorized the nation’s capital for weeks in 2002 and left 10 people dead, or Asian, like the Virginia Tech killer, who left 32 people dead and wounded several others in 2007.
But identifying suspects by race when it is not clearly germane violates most style guides.
Paul Colford, spokesman for the Associated Press, explained to Journal-isms at midday, “I’m told that ‘white’ was part of the original police description, though that element will be dropped. Race is included when a story contains a racial element, and so far this one apparently has no such element.”
Reporting the suspect’s race was the least of the departures from accepted journalism practices.
“Television journalism today proved that it learned little from last month’s Supreme Court mishap,” Erik Wemple wrote for the Washington Post. “ABC News’s Brian Ross, in a rush to break some news on the Aurora, Colo., shooting rampage, incorrectly associated the suspect in the case with the Tea Party.