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"Did ESPN just get 'mediajacked'?" Brian Steinberg asked Wednesday on AdAge.com.

"Normally, an event as important and interesting as basketball wunderkind LeBron James announcing what team he has chosen to play for would be a national, even global, event — with coverage supplied by hundreds of different media outlets.

"Come Thursday, in prime time no less, ESPN gets the exclusive. But to do it, the Disney sports network appears to have sacrificed revenue — and even some journalistic control by letting Mr. James choose one of his interviewers — in exchange for the ratings and buzz the event is likely to provide.

"Commercial revenue from the special program — which is being called 'The Decision' — will be donated to Boys & Girls [Clubs] of America, a charity that ESPN and Disney also support. The ESPN show will be 'co-presented' by the University of Phoenix and Microsoft's Bing search engine, with Coca-Cola's VitaminWater and McDonald's also lending a sponsorship hand. Nike and Coca-Cola's Sprite are also making contributions, a fact one might theorize could come to light during the airing of Mr. James' special.

"The only commercial time in the hour-long special not featuring Mr. James's sponsors is the local time designated to cable and satellite operators, said Norby Williamson, ESPN's exec VP-production. Mr. James' representatives approached the network with the idea, he said.

"ESPN said the deal was not equivalent to paying the athlete for the scoop.

" 'Times change and needs change and people's desires change and other parameters are put on things,' said Mr. Williamson, but ESPN seems to think the 'unique' arrangement works both from a business and editorial standpoint. 'We ultimately had a decision to make. This event could have ended up on the internet. It could have ended up on another network. This event was going to end up somewhere, so we had a decision to make as a corporation and a news entity. Are we comfortable with the parameters that have been laid out?' "

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: LeBron's Television Special

Milton Kent, NBA Fanhouse: ESPN Defends LeBron James Special

How Relevant Is a Suspect's Race?

Gilbert Cranberg, a longtime editorial page editor at the Des Moines Register who retired in the early 1980s, criticized his former paper for not mentioning that the men were black. "When fugitives are at large, it’s undeniably useful to know a person’s color in narrowing the field of suspects," he wrote June 22 on the Nieman Watchdog site.

Undeniably?

A Des Moines Register video of the victimized couple does show the fiance, Brad Evans, eventually describing his tormenters as "African American."

More important: A spokeswoman for the Des Moines Police Department says police actually have more detail than the description of "three black males" that Cranberg said should be published — but that even the added detail is "way too broad" to be helpful.

That real-world assessment from Sgt. Lori Lavorato flies in the face of some viewers, readers and even journalists who maintain that publishing racial descriptions of suspects, however vague, helps in their apprehension.

"We don't identify someone's race unless we have other identifying information as well," Register Editor Carolyn Washburn told Journal-isms on Wednesday. "In this case, we only knew at the beginning that the suspects were black men. That vague description would only serve to make all black men suspects and would not help narrow the search. We waited until we had slightly more detail a few days later, but even then there wasn't much description.

"I thought that approach was still pretty typical across news organizations. Has that changed?"

It depends. One can still hear suspects racially identified in the broadcast media and in smaller-circulation print publications. It's a perennial topic for public editors who hear from readers accusing their news organizations of being "politically correct" by omitting race. It was only five years ago that Michael Getler, ombudsman for the Washington Post — now at PBS — wrote, "There is something about withholding information that the police make public that is troubling in a case such as this. It seems to me that the chance that it may be helpful is what's important and that people will understand that."

Here are the police descriptions of the Des Moines suspects, all "black males, about 20 to 23," Lavorato said.

Suspect One: Wearing braids, in possession of a .32 semi-automatic, a black shirt, red bandana, 6'3", 150 pounds, black hair, unknown eye color. Second suspect: Approximately 23 years old, black shirt, black do-rag, black bandana, .22 caliber rifle with a pistol grip; 6'1", unknown hair color and eye color. Third: Wore all black clothes, a black bandana, carrying a handgun, about 23 years old, 6 feet, 180 pounds, unknown hair and eye color.

"We haven't had any good information" from the public since those descriptions were released, Lavorato said. "In general, this is way too broad. . . . This information isn't going to help."

Many news organizations have policies such as this, at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

"We do not identify an individual by race unless the information is clearly relevant. In crime stories in which authorities seek a fugitive, a racial designation is included as part of a very detailed description that provides enough information to aid in the capture of a suspect. We should take the position that designating a person as white or black, or some other racial classification, does not provide information, necessarily, on what the person looks like. A person's complexion, facial features, distinguishing marks may all be part of a detailed description. The same theory holds for unidentified bodies in a police investigation. We do not identify them as black or white, or any other racial classification, unless it is part of a detailed description."

Some factors to consider:

  • How specific is the police description?
  • Bill Ketter, who was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1995-96 and later edited the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune, told his staff, "Reporters should always press police for details that distinguish suspects from other persons of the same racial or ethnic group."

What does a "black male" or a Latino look like?

Eleven years ago, Keith Woods, then of the Poynter Institute, wrote an essay, "The Language of Race," in which he said:

"All racial and ethnic groups do share some common physical characteristics. Still, we don't see the phrase 'Irish-looking man' in the newspaper, though red hair and pale skin are common Irish characteristics. Would a picture come to mind if a TV anchor said, 'The suspect appeared to be Italian'? Couldn't many of us conjure an image if the police said they were looking for a middle-aged man described as 'Jewish-looking'?

"There are good reasons those descriptions never see the light of day. They generalize. They stereotype. And they require that everyone who hears the description has the same idea of what those folks look like. All Irish-Americans don't look alike. Why, then, accept a description that says a suspect was African-American?'"

What are the chances that the constant repetition of suspect descriptions as "black male" or "Hispanic male" will lead readers and viewers to view all members of that group in that way?

Who can forget the cases of whites who performed crimes and, to deflect suspicion, lied and said a black or Hispanic person did the deed?

How good are eyewitness identifications, anyway?

"Over 175 people have been wrongfully convicted based, in part, on eyewitness misidentification and later proven innocent through DNA testing," the Innocence Project reported last year. "The total number of wrongful convictions involving eyewitness misidentifications exceeds this figure, given the widespread use of eyewitness testimony and the limited number of cases in which DNA evidence is available for post-conviction testing."

As the psychiatrist Steve Rubenezer wrote on the subject of wrongful identifications, "Expectations influence what people see — or think they see."

Tom Alex, Des Moines Register: Couple move from home after June 15 invasion