Reader response: Covering a hate crime
Last week, the building that is home to the Oklahoma Democratic Party was hit with racist and homophobic graffiti. The Oklahoman's story on the incident, which you can read here, evolved throughout the day from coverage of a crime scene to a cleanup rally held later in the day.
The Oklahoman reported with photos, video, online stories and a front page story the next day on the incident and the cleanup effort.
Police are investigating it as a hate crime and are searching for a possible suspect.
The story got a lot of reader reaction, including some who disagreed with certain aspects of The Oklahoman's coverage. Here are a couple of the most common questions I received via email and social media, along with an overview of my response.
- Related to this story
- Article: Oklahoma Democratic Party office defaced with racist graffiti
- Article: Racist and derogatory graffiti spray-painted where Oklahoma Democratic Party located
- Article: OKC police release photos of woman wanted for questioning in racist, homophobic graffiti incidents
- Article: Police continue to investigate graffiti hate crimes in Oklahoma City
- Article: Graffiti vandal wanted to 'scare Jewish people,' also hit two churches
- Article: Accused graffiti vandal hospitalized for 'health danger'
- Article: Woman pleads guilty to spray-painting racist graffiti
- Video: Community works to remove racist graffiti
David B. wrote - Not sure you can say this was "racist" since this may be a hoax.
David's correct, we did label the graffiti as "racist and homophobic." He's also correct that we don't know the motive or the individual who committed the crime.
The Associated Press Stylebook, which we follow, addresses the use of "racist."
Begin by assessing the facts: Does the statement or action meet the definition of racism? That assessment need not involve examining the motivation of the person who spoke or acted, which is a separate issue that may not be related to how the statement or action itself can be characterized.
While we would avoid calling a person "racist," it is important to use clear language when describing the incident.
Also from the AP:
Do not use racially charged or similar terms as euphemisms for racist or racism when the latter terms are truly applicable.
Kevin C. wrote - Why share the images of the graffiti? That is what the perpetrator wants.
Kevin's comment was shared by many. While our story in print and the main story online did not include images of the symbols or language spray-painted on the building, we did post a photo gallery and share some images on social media that offered a clear look at what was said in the graffiti.
One photo included a black woman who was cleaning up a swastika that was spay-painted on the sidewalk. It was a powerful image, and I felt comfortable sharing it because we had interviewed the woman.
Different news outlets have their own views on this issue and some promoted the fact that they would not share any photos of the language or symbols. I like what Poynter wrote in 2017 in the wake of the Charlottesville protest.
Bring context to the video and still photos you select. Your first duty is to explain what happened.
Also from Poynter:
Show your audience what they need to know to understand the events in proper context, but don’t reward hate groups with notoriety.
For some things we have specific guidelines and rules. Other times the news can be more complex and require conversation. One of my favorite parts about working in a newsroom is it can serve as an arena for that type of debate and discussion. We don't always get it right, but we always try to arrive a decision with careful thought and reasoning.
What do you think?