When is a Crime Hateful?

Covering Bias Attacks in America
By James Jorden

You probably know the name Matthew Shepherd, but what about Sakia Gunn? Both were young people widely believed to have been murdered because they were gay. Yet Gunn's brutal stabbing in Newark, N.J., in May 2003 has received little of the media attention that followed Shepherd's death in 1998.

In 2001 alone, nearly 1,400 hate crimes based on sexual orientation were committed in the United States, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports. But the Shepherd and Gunn cases illustrate that not all hate crimes are covered in the same way. As with other crime stories, the victims' race, socioeconomic background, and gender can play a role in the amount of coverage a particular case gets. How should reporters cover crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people?

Not every violent crime committed against an LGBT person is a hate crime. That's because the term "hate crime" depends upon a legal definition that varies by state and jurisdiction.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 31 states and the District of Columbia have hate crimes laws that cover sexual orientation. Thirteen have laws covering gender identity. Four states (Arkansas, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming) have no hate crimes laws at all.

In 2009, congress passed the The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act allowing the federal government to provide assistance to state and local authorities. Where local authorities cannot or will not prosecute, the federal government still has no additional jurisdiction.

A paragraph or two can detail the local jurisdiction's legal definition of the crime or an expert's explanation of the impact of a hate crime on the community.

Howard Goldberg, AP assistant bureau chief in New York, emphasizes that in a mainstream media story, "It is important to define what a hate crime is. Pursuing that label may have political ramifications in deciding how much attention the case gets, both in how it is played in the media and whether politicians respond to and act on the underlying danger."

In those states in which hate crime laws include sexual orientation or gender identity, "hate crime" is not a label that can be applied automatically — even when a crime seems motivated by bias. Local prosecutors must decide whether they will seek the increased penalties associated with a hate crime. So a reporter's best practice is to attribute a call of "hate crime" to police or the district attorney's office.

Laura Brown, news editor of Atlanta's Southern Voice newspaper, says that in covering any crime against a gay or transgender person, the reporter's first question to prosecutors should be "Do you consider this a hate crime?"

In cases when authorities do not make an immediate decision on bias charges, Jon Barrett, senior news editor of The Advocate in Los Angeles, suggests that the term "bias-related crime" can be useful. Since "bias-related" is not a legal term, it may be attributed to anyone with knowledge of the crime — the victim, witnesses, family members, friends or community leaders.

Although hate crimes are generally defined based upon the perceptions of the perpetrator, the actual sexual orientation or gender identity of the victim is often relevant to the story. "Typically editors will insist this information must be both relevant and attributed to someone who's in a position to know," Goldberg says.

The best source for information on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity is that person. But when the victim is deceased or unable to speak, reporters may turn to the next of kin, friends or police for an attribution. When approaching a subject's family or friends and asking about sexual orientation or gender identity, remember that the victim may not be out to family, friends or peers.

If no such authority is available to speak on the record, Brown suggests that the writer can report a fact such as the location of the incident and "leave the reader to fill in the dots."

Sometimes sexual orientation or gender identity of the victim may be in dispute. But that very uncertainty may be the most important element of a story.

Goldberg cites the instance of a transgender inmate in a men's prison who suffered a beating. A controversy arose over whether the victim should have been in the prison in the first place, with some arguing that since a planned sex reassignment surgery was not complete, the victim could not be considered female.

Journalists should remember that crimes motivated by bias, whether it be racism or homophobia, impact not only the victim but also the larger community. In many cases, the context and aftermath of a hate crime is a bigger story than the incident itself.