Monday, November 10, 2008

Is Weight Relevant in a Crime Story?

I saw a small news story recently in a major regional paper about a man arrested for murder. They gave some details about the case, how the body was found, the man's history of mental illness, etc. Normal reporting stuff.

Then, at the end of the article, they noted that the man weighed more than 400 lbs. They gave his height and weight, taken from the jail records.

My immediate reaction was.....What does this have to do with the case? Why is it relevant to be reported?

If the man was on the loose and they were asking the public to look for him, well, okay. Seems relevant then to have posted a physical description of the suspect on the loose.

But the man had been taken into custody already. So what about his weight had any bearing at all on anything?

Again, if a suspected criminal is at large in the community, physical description certainly seems relevant. Occasionally there may be some cases where weight might be relevant, such as reporting details about a crime which involved a struggle with a significant discrepancy in size between the perpetrator and the victim, etc. [I remember seeing a report from a trial with a scenario like that and thinking, well okay, maybe it's relevant here.]

But most of the time, I don't see how a person's weight is relevant to the reporting of crime cases. And yet, I've noticed it seems to be fairly common practice to include it.....if the person is fat. And especially if they are supersized.

And that leads me to my next point, the non-uniform application of weight reporting. If you consider weight relevant to crime reporting, then report everyone's. But the only ones I see being included are the ones where the suspect is significantly fat.

Why is a person's "obesity" status relevant at all? Given the level of bias about obesity in most people, including this information prejudices the public's perception about the suspect before they've even gone to trial.

As far as I'm concerned, all it does is further demonize obese people in the public's eye.

I don't think most newspaper reporters and editors are doing it consciously or deliberately....they probably are just reporting any details they see as being out of the "ordinary."

But they need to consider what effect their reporting may have, both on public bias about obesity ("supersized people are often mentally ill and/or dangerous") and on whether that suspect can get a fair trial.

The bottom line is whether any particular detail about the suspect is really relevant to the case or not.

In this case, the two main aspects highlighted were the man's mental illness and his size. Mental illness is a tricky one.....sometimes it's relevant, sometimes not. You have to be careful not to demonize or overgeneralize about it. Yet in this case, the man's mental illness probably played a strong role in the murder, so it seems relevant in that regard.

On the other hand, his weight does not seem to have played any kind of role in the murder, at least from the information publicized so far. So why include it?

I just can't see that it was justified or relevant at all.

Actionable Response

Well, that's just a pattern that I've noticed in papers for a number of years now. I don't see it all that often, but I do see it frequently enough to see a pattern, one that seems completely unnoticed by the writers and editors.

It really frustrates me that no one at the paper sees a problem with it. Surely the writer (or at least the editor!) would see that such things have no relevance to the report and might even cause harm?

When I see examples like this, I always think to myself.....I need to cut this out of the paper and save a bunch of examples up of it, then write to the editor (or ombudsman) of the paper, give my examples, point out the pattern, and explain why it's a problem.

So I'll write down the item or cut it out.....and then I lose it before I have enough good examples to show a pattern. My life is extraordinarily busy and complex, and this has just slipped through the cracks, given the many other priorities in my life. Yet this jumped up again recently and it's been bothering me ever since.

Yes, I could write and complain about this one example (and I may still), but it really is more powerful to show a pattern. Editors respond more decisively if a pattern of bias or misreporting can be shown. So I'd urge the rest of the folks in the fatosphere to start watching news media for examples like this, collect them, and then write in to the editors and protest it.

In the meantime, I have an article to dig out of the recycle pile and hopefully a letter to the editor to write. Chances are no one will notice the problem if no one ever mentions it. Time to get my butt in gear.

Comments? Do you see stuff like that in your local papers? Do you point it out to the writers and editors? If so, what kind of response have you had?

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