Can't you give full descriptions?

Question: A story a few days back concerned a lawsuit a "large" person was intending to file, claiming she was insulted, etc., by airline employees concerning her weight. Seems the airline "suggested' she'd be more comfortable with two seats, instead of just one. Nowhere in the story, did you give the person's weight. This was an important item that was left out. Why?

Second item: for quite some time now, when reporting on bank robberies, muggings, attempted rapes, etc., you often will say "the suspect is 5-foot-8, weighing 190 lbs., etc. Anyone with info call the police, etc." Nowhere do you say if it is a white male, a black male, a Latino or what. What good is such a glossed-over description? -- Francis Potter, Spokane

Answer: The woman who is suing Southwest Airlines asked that we not report her weight. She also did not want to be fully photographed. We respectfully abided by her request, because it's clear from the photo we did take that she is of large stature. I think the story made it clear what her complaints against the airline are, and we spelled out the airline's response. It's more important for readers to know what the airline's practices and policies are than it is to know this woman's specific weight.

As for suspect descriptions, our goal is to be able to provide readers with enough information to act as informed citizens without racially profiling anyone. We struggle with being consistent. We are dependent on law enforcement to provide us suspect descriptions. They often contend that even partial information can help trigger the memories of witnesses. That may be true, but it is also very imprecise and often stigmatizing.

We try to publish descriptions only when we have specific details. In those cases, we will note the race of a suspect. When we don't have specific information, we avoid mentioning race because it has the effect of stereotyping. For instance, if we report that a suspect has red hair and blue eyes, but no other details, that casts everyone with red hair and blue eyes in a negative light. What we probably need to do more of is be discriminating. We need to provide only the most specific details on crimes. When we can't meet that threshhold, we probably shouldn't say anything at all. -- Carla Savalli, city editor

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