MAN: The thing that's important to remember is a 350-pound person has a tremendous amount of insulation around them--
MAN: -- so the effectiveness of those jabs is very minimized, and the officers have to work even harder. Take into consideration the fact that he also has a tremendous amount of natural strength and is much larger than these officers -- it's, it's a monumental task. In fact, ultimately...
BOB GARFIELD:When an apparently PCP-addled, 350-pound Cincinnati man died while being subdued by police last week, many reading the news accounts focused on the checkered history of the Cincinnati Police. But at least one reader was curious about something else: why the victim's girth figured so prominently in the reporting. USA Today's Detroit Bureau Chief Jim Kiley wrote to Jim Romenesko's Poynter Institute website to complain about the weight-centric coverage.
JIM ROMENESKO: My problem with the wire story was that the headline and the lead both identified him as a 350-pound man, as if that was part of his crime. Neither the headline nor the lead mentioned the fact that he was hopped up on PCP, and that that caused the melee with the police in the first place.
BOB GARFIELD: You think this is endemic to journalism?
JIM ROMENESKO:I do. A lot of reporters refer to a person's weight almost as if to back up or substantiate a crime, an alleged crime, a mental illness. For example, in 2000 police caught a former sailor who was a serial killer. And in most of the stories about that guy, they referred to him as a 300-pound killer. One story said "The former sailor was sad, as his 300-pound body heaved with tearful confessions." Now my question is, if he was 180 pounds, wouldn't his body still have been heaving? But would it have been mentioned? Another example that I like is an AP story from December 2002, talks about an aspiring police officer who allegedly injured his baby son while bouncing him on his leg. The man was described as "a 300-pound aspiring police officer." His weight is used against him almost like a prior conviction. And one more story that I think rounds out the pattern is a Sarasota Herald Tribune story from March of this year about corrupt police officers. "The strongest turncoat, John Mervolian, is a 300-pound hulk who other officers consider a disruptive, dishonest snitch. The other, William Hames, is an alcoholic who quit drinking after holding a gun on a bus driver on a drunken blackout." I mean here's another case where a guy is being described as a snitch, and they throw in the fact that he weighs 300 pounds. I don't think they would have done that if he'd have weighed 190 pounds.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, fair enough. But as I look through the examples that you gave me--
JIM ROMENESKO: Mm-hm?
BOB GARFIELD:-- many of these headlines are about attacks by very heavy men, and the, the weight is not cited completely out of nowhere. It, it gets to how menacing the situation was for the police officers who were on hand to deal with it or for the victims of the crime. So, are you, yourself, over-sensitive to what are perfectly legitimate invocations of someone's physical specs?
JIM ROMENESKO: Probably. I weight just shy of 290 pounds. I used to weigh a lot more. But what bothers me as a reporter as well as a large man, trying to get along in the world, is reinforcing stereotypes in our news copy. Look, people read stories that equate being fat with committing a crime, and these crimes are often sexual or abuse-related, and they, they make an impression after impression. Well what's the effect of that when people to go hire a person who's obese? How about when a jury is evaluating someone's guilt or innocence and how their impressions of fat people might color their thinking on a verdict?
BOB GARFIELD:So in this world of political correctness, an extreme sensitivity to stigmatizing language and everything that goes with it, how has the sensitivity to obesity slipped between the cracks?
JIM ROMENESKO: I don't know how it has, except that it is, in my opinion, the last refuge of, of hate in this country. There's something about obese people, about fat people that people think that they have a license; that it's still socially okay to relegate fat people to some compartment of society. I've seen numerous studies about how fat people find it harder to get employed, how they make less money than thin people in several industries, and look, you know the - we, we see this played out in the movies and in television all the time where fat people are made to look pathetic and stupid. I just have a real problem with it being reinforced in news copy.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, David. Well thank you so much.
JIM ROMENESKO: Well, thank you Bob, for the time, and for allowing me to talk about it. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, branding the new liberal network and firing up conservative campus newspapers.