In Defense of Crime Reporters

There may be no more difficult–or harrowing–job in the newsroom than being a crime reporter, covering the murders in a large metropolitan area. You are at the mercy of the police reports, families don’t want to talk, and the 24-hour news cycle, even at a newspaper, demands you get information out quickly.

So what do you do when the police report identifies the victim of a murder in an area known for prostitution, drug deals, and homeless camps as a man, but says the victim also went by a woman’s name?  That was the dilemma faced by reporters in Houston reporting on the murder of Myra Chanel Ical. Here’s how the Advocate summarized the controversy over how Ical’s murder was covered.

The half-naked body of a 51-year-old trans woman was found last week in a vacant lot in the Montrose area of Houston, Texas. But reports of Myra Ical’s death have been salacious at best, with mainstream media referring to Myra as a man, saying the area where her body was found was known by police to be frequented by prostitutes and drug users.

The Houston Chronicle reported that Ruben Dario Ical “also went by the name of Myra Chanel Ical” and that “he had numerous bruises and defensive wounds, as if he had struggled against his attacker.”

The coverage of Ical’s murder has resulted in a letter, sent by local gay activist Meghan Stabler, decrying the coverage as “lazy and irresponsible journalism” caused by “ignorance about transgender issues that is rampant among far too many reporters despite the existence of resources to help them report accurately.”

But was it? If you look at the Chronicle‘s story, they basically took information from the Houston Police Department report.  How the police department came to identify Ical as Ruben Dario Ical, who also used the name Myra, is unclear.  Was it based on driver’s license?  Fingerprints?  We don’t really know.

I emailed the folks at the Houston Press, an alternative weekly in Houston, who run a blog Bayou Body Count which covers murders in Houston, including Ical’s. The Press initially identified Ical as a man–based on information from the police department–but then changed the pronouns in the story once more information was known and criticism mounted.

The editor explained that the blog gets its news from HPD and, unless there is something striking about the murder, they just report on what is available from the police department.  Murder is not a unique happening in Houston, like many cities, and the blog can report on multiple murders a day.

To the Press‘ credit, they changed their story once more information was available and after conversations in the newsroom.  That’s they way these kinds of things are supposed to happen. And, arguably, they local press was in a Catch-22 on covering the murder to begin with since they were reporting based on police information.

The situation reminds me of a previous post about the murder of three transgender Native Americans in Albuquerque, N.M. and figuring out the proper way to describe the victims. There was a need for more reporting and greater sensitivity, but the situation was complex to figure out.

Before we can criticize the immediate reporting of the story, we need to know why the police identified Ical the way they did.  Did the reporters know what gender Ical identified as in public? The NLGJA stylebook says, “[w]hen writing about a transgender person, use the name and personal pronouns that are consistent with the way the individual lives publicly.” But how do you find that out for a murder victim?  What if no family is talking?  What if you need to get the story out before you can verify how the victim lived publicly?  These aren’t easy problems to solve.

The obvious answer is more reporting.  And when new information is available, as the Press did, change the story to reflect that new information. In a story today about a candle light vigil, the Chronicle avoids using pronouns, but calls the victim Myra Chanel Ical. KHOU has done a follow-up story which also describes Ical as a woman.

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