Why does The Michigan Daily need a public editor? In fact, it doesn’t. But if the Daily wants to be more responsive to its readers, if it wants to understand how the stories it publishes impact the community the newspaper covers, then a public editor is one way to accomplish that goal.

My job is a work in progress, and I hope you all will help me define it. For now, I see my role as an advocate to help the staff become more sensitive to the people they cover, ensure that complaints about the newspaper get directed to the right people and battle against plagiarism. I can make no guarantees that I’ll be successful in all those goals, but I’ll give it my best shot. And if you have any ideas what a public editor should do, I welcome your suggestions. The editors of the Daily merely edit my columns for grammar and do not have veto power over its content.

I am honored to be a part of The Michigan Daily, one of the great college newspapers in the country, with distinguished alumni such as Arthur Miller, Thomas Dewey and the first public editor of The New York Times, Daniel Okrent. As an undergraduate student back in the stone age, when America Online still charged by the hour, I was editor in chief of another great college newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun, the paper of Kurt Vonnegut, E.B. White and Thomas Pynchon, and I would be remiss not to give my old college paper a shout-out.

Currently I am a second-year student at the University Law School. Prior to returning to school, I interned at the Los Angeles Times, served as local reporter for the Hartford Courant in Connecticut and covered race relations in New Jersey for the Record of Bergen County. A measure of wanderlust led me to law school and then to the University of Michigan, and I’ve enjoyed tremendously my return to school.

When offered the chance to help out the Daily, I realized my experience in the news industry could be valuable to students here. I hope that I am able in my own way to help improve the content of the Daily for the readers and the staff of the Daily. But to do that, I need to hear from you. Please feel free to e-mail me at publiceditor@umich.edu and leave comments on my blog. I’ll have a phone number set up at a later date.

Even though this is my introductory column, I did notice one minor item in the paper that I thought might make for a good teachable moment. In a short crime story on Oct. 5, the Department of Public Safety describes a suspect accused of indecent exposure as Hispanic, among other characteristics.

Why do I bring this up? Hispanic is not a race; it is an ethnicity. One can be black, white, Asian or Native American and still be Hispanic. So it provides no more useful information to describe a suspect as Hispanic any more than it is to describe someone as Italian or Australian. You only use Hispanic if you believe that there’s a stereotypical look to every Hispanic. The term, in context of this news story, is over-inclusive, because Hispanics can be any color, and under-inclusive, because the stereotypical Hispanic “look” excludes a lot of people who are in fact Hispanic.

This doesn’t mean race has no place in the identification of criminal suspects; it does, as my criminal procedure professor will tell you. But I do think that the use of ethnicity, particularly in a news story, should be avoided unless there’s a compelling reason for it and not just as shorthand for a stereotype.

Even the use of race without any other descriptive characteristics can be troublesome. In 1992, police in Oneonta, N.Y. were investigating the report of an attempted rape, robbery and burglary. The only details police had about that the suspect was that he was a black male with cuts on his hands and arms. Police then proceeded to roust every black male attending the State University of New York at Oneonta in order to check for cuts on their hands. Needless to say, this poisoned relations on campus for years.

Therefore, I would suggest the Daily’s editors think critically when they publish descriptions supplied by police of criminal suspects to ensure they’re passing along information that is useful and not potentially unhelpful. Besides, if someone catches a man pleasuring himself in front of the Intramural Sports Building, they can be relatively certain that the man is the one police are looking for without wondering if the man is indeed Hispanic.

Paul H. Johnson is the Daily’s public editor. He can be reached at publiceditor@umich.edu.

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