Prejudicial or information?

I had an email exchange with a reader recently in regards to a headline (in the Ashland Daily Tidings) that identified an arrested man as a “Saudi.” We eventually politely agreed to disagree on whether the reference was appropriate. This story took a new twist when the arrested man was again arrested on an airplane after an incident, but the original issue remains a valid one. Here’s the email discussion:

Hello, Bob:

. . . I thought the headline in today’s (Tuesday, February 21) Tidings, about the intoxicated driver ) was unfortunate. From what I’ve heard about the newspaper business someone other than the reporter composes the headlines, usually under a tough deadline. I suspect that the headline writer used information from the first, lead paragraph, and in that paragraph the driver was identified as Saudi Arabian.

My concern is that the identification of the driver as a Saudi was unnecessary and prejudicial to people from the Middle East. From the printed story none of his actions related to his country of citizenship. The incident, bizarre as it must have been, involved cars, people, and alcohol. As someone in my Rotary club mentioned this morning, after witnessing the chase, the real story was the professionalism of the various law enforcement officers in handling a potentially dangerous situation with restraint and tact.

We could write off my concern as one more case of being politically correct, but I respect both of you enough to acknowledge the responsibility of media to understand the power of their words. It is unfortunate that more than a few of your readers will glance at the headline, maybe read one or two graphs into the story, and come away with an impression that in addition to being terrorists and Muslims, that Saudis are a menace on our streets. You and I know that is not true, but some of your readers will make that logical leap. That does nothing to serve the public good.

Were I editing this piece I would bury the Saudi connection further in the piece, if at all, and then the headline writer wouldn’t have had that hook to consider.

Thanks for listening.

– Doug

Doug:

I understand your concern on this, but have to respectfully disagree. We discussed this yesterday when it was first posted on the Web and agreed that if the driver were French or Norwegian or Japanese (or from Iowa, for that matter), that would be relevant to the story. So the fact that a driver who caused such an uproar was a Saudi was also relevant to the story — it just adds to the weird nature of the episode.

We would never refer to someone’s religion in this circumstance — it’s not relevant and to do so would be inviting the kind of prejudice you refer to. We absolutely oppose any efforts to lump “all Middle Easterners” or “all Asians” or “all African Americans” into one convenient class. People should be judged on their own actions — and in this case, the young man who created the issue will be.

Certainly, we have to be aware of circumstances in which a national/racial/ethnic identity could raise false alarms, but I don’t think a drunken driving incident is that sort of circumstance. This was just a bizarre situation, and the fact that a foreign national was at the wheel adds to the bizarreness (if that’s a word).

(Our Web editor just told me that the story is being retweeted and otherwise circulated in a variety of Arabic publications, and they are all prominently referring to him as a Saudi as well.)

In the end, it is important that we’re careful not to inflame prejudice, but it’s also important that we not become so worried about it that we don’t clearly tell the story.

Thanks for your note. …

Bob

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