The failure to consider identity of murder victim undermines honest reporting

University of Pennsylvania sophomore Blaze Bernstein went out with Samuel Woodward on the Jan. 2 and, after missing for a week, Bernstein was found in a shallow grave near his family’s home in Lake Forest, California, where he was staying for winter break. Bernstein was stabbed 20 times.Woodward was later apprehended and tried for Bernstein’s murder, to which he plead not guilty.

Many reports of this case have covered these details, but several early reports failed to mention Bernstein’s identity as a gay, Jewish man, nor did they bring up the connections between Woodward and Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group. The fact that there are still reports that fail to mention these things, begs the question: what role does identity play in honest reporting? Is it best to include all the details, even ones which may be irrelevant or does true reporting ignore constructs and simply report incidents? In order to truly understand this, it would be best for us to further consider what constitutes individual identity and the impact it has on our lives.

Firstly, let’s talk about inherent identity, which is to say, identity that cannot be willingly changed. This would constitute constructs such as gender, sexuality, disability, age or race. While these things are largely social constructs they still play an integral role in how we interpret and interact with the world around us. For example, my experiences as a young, mentally ill, white, gay cisgender man are going to influence how I maneuver the world around me.

While I have the privileges of being white and of identifying with the gender I was assigned, I have difficulties with my mental health and with my sexuality, not because these are necessarily bad things, but because of how they are treated in social spheres. My sexuality is often hypersexualized by the media and by my family and my mental illness has been used to undermine my ability to be autonomous. I cannot change these things about myself, but I can work to change how they are treated in society.

In contrast, chosen identity can be changed. This would constitute political affiliation, fandoms, university, Hogwarts house, etc. These are all aspects of identity which are not set in stone; that can change under the right circumstances. Granted, these are heavily influenced by environment and upbringing and the like, but there are actions that can be taken in order to challenge that. A low-stakes example would be if I heavily identified as a football fan, but, after watching a few games and getting into some players, found tennis to be more interesting and rewarding. The identity has shifted because of exposure and an openness to change.

So in the case of Bernstein, he has the inherent identity of being both gay and Jewish, whereas Woodward has the chosen identity of being a neo-Nazi. Bernstein did not choose to be gay, nor did he choose to be Jewish, but Woodward chose to be a neo-Nazi.

These are important facts. These identities affect us in our day to day life; making us, perhaps, more likely to be shot and killed by police or more likely to suffer from mental illness. Identities affect the real world like actions do and to ignore them is to deny truth.