On anniversary of Trayvon Martin death, lessons and reflections on race and media
What stands out about Trayvon Martin is how easily his name might not have become a household word.
Martin, 17, was shot dead by George Zimmerman a year ago today -- on Feb. 26, 2012 -- while walking to a home he was visiting at a subdivision in Sanford, Fla. Later, after his case became a worldwide cause, people around the world learned the youth was unarmed, holding a bag of Skittles and a container of iced tea after a trip to a nearby convenience store.
Zimmerman was a volunteer neighborhood watch captain who killed the youth with a gun he was legally licensed to carry after they got in a fight; the state’s Stand Your Ground law provided possible justification for using lethal force if Zimmerman felt his life was in jeopardy.
But one of the first reports on the shooting, an 86-word piece printed in the Orlando Sentinel on Feb. 27, noted simply that “two men were arguing before shots were fired.” The next day, the newspaper published another, 152-word story naming Martin, citing his age and noting his Facebook page listed Miami as his hometown, quoting a local TV station’s report that there had been a fistfight before the shooting. But the newspaper didn’t name Zimmerman, it wrote, “because he has not been charged.”
By March 2, the Miami Herald had published a report noting erroneously that Martin was shot dead at a convenience store, quoting the teen’s uncle. It did name Zimmerman, but understated the 28-year-old’s age by three years.
None of these stories, however, had the detail which would turn Martin’s case into an international media tsunami: Martin was black and the shooter who killed him was not.
Race was the engine which eventually turned Trayvon Martin’s death into the first story to briefly eclipse the presidential race in coverage during 2012; sparking “million hoodie” marches across the country (emulating the hooded jacket the teen was wearing when he was killed) and eventually costing Sanford police chief Bill Lee his job.
With the race difference, police reticence to arrest Zimmerman took on a new light, raising fears of a Southern town’s good ol’ boy network in action.
And journalists had an angle which could elevate the unfortunate shooting of a young boy into a story with implications about racial profiling, small town justice and the struggle for a working class, black family to get fair treatment from a mostly white police force and criminal justice system.
“It’s clear this kind of thing just doesn’t happen to white people…so race played some role in it,” said Trymaine Lee, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who covered the case for the Huffington Post’s Black Voices site. Lee spoke with me in late 2012, just before leaving the Huffington Post to join MSNBC.com as a senior writer.
“Obviously, Trayvon wasn’t doing anything illegal at the time,” added Lee, who jumped onto the Martin case early, after Martin’s father hosted a press conference on the steps of the Sanford Police Department. Lee wrote one of the first extensive national stories about the family’s concerns that police wouldn’t prosecute Zimmerman. “But to paint (Zimmerman) as a homicidal devil incarnate is also a little…(much).”
But notions of racial implications behind the killing didn’t emerge until more than a week after the teen’s death, when CBS News, the Huffington Post and Reuters were among the first national news outlets to publish stories on that angle.
The family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, said in Reuters’ March 7 story that race was “the 600 pound elephant in the room. Why is this kid suspicious in the first place? I think a stereotype must have been placed on the kid.”
Lee wrote a story March 8 story for the Huffington Post noting “an unarmed African-American teenager was shot and killed in a gated community in Florida late last month by a white neighborhood watch captain, according to police. But the watch captain, George Zimmerman…still walks free.”
Why did it take so long for the story to surface? Sanford is a city where the closest newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel, had closed its local bureau and police early on insisted they had no cause to arrest Zimmerman.
More bluntly, it seemed nobody was all that interested in a neighborhood watch captain killing a black teen in a subdivision, until Martin’s parents began to speak up. This is a sore subject for some diversity advocates, who say media outlets may cover crime victims differently based on their race.
In missing persons cases for instance, critics have assailed the habit of extensively covering white females who have gone missing as breaking news, while missing people of color only get similar coverage through stories about how little media attention they get.
The Trayvon Martin shooting, barely covered as a breaking news event, seemed to follow the pattern of attracting more coverage for the racial implications of its aftermath than the news of the killing itself.
And a problem surfaced early in these first accounts. Though the initial police report on Martin’s killing listed shooter George Zimmerman as white, he self-identified as Hispanic on both his driver’s license and voting records.
Because Zimmerman was already in hiding and didn’t have anyone speaking publicly for him, that fact didn’t surface until March 15, when his father Robert Zimmerman delivered a letter to the Orlando Sentinel noting “George is a Spanish-speaking minority with many black family members and friends.” (George Zimmerman’s mother is from Peru and his father is a non-Hispanic white man).
Others -- notably, Pulitzer Prize winning African American columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. – noted that Zimmerman still could have racially profiled a young black teenager regardless of his own cultural background.
Still, the wrinkle with Zimmerman’s ethnic heritage – The New York Times and ABC News even called him a “white Hispanic” in some stories, straining to encompass the situation’s racial dimensions in a single, crude identifier – highlighted some early, race-centered issues exposed by this story.
Early problems, clashing values
Because people want race issues to be simple, often news stories centered on race are crafted simply. They feature shocking tales complete with heroes, villains and injustice, often with people of color presented as the noble victims. But the drive to fit real-life circumstances into these molds can be the enemy of accurate journalism.
In the Trayvon Martin case, journalists quickly found themselves balancing conflicts between several different journalism values. There are three values that collided in the Martin case: the call for social justice, the notion that diversity adds context, and the drive for exclusive scoops.
The social justice imperative. Journalists often seek to pursue social justice in their work, living up to Fourth Estate ideals of speaking up for those who lack power in society, opposing unfair treatment in government systems and holding big institutions accountable. In the Martin case, early reports suggested a white man might have gunned down a black teenager and received no prosecution or punishment, allowing journalists to feel free to even the score by bringing attention to the situation, amplifying the family’s calls for more information and the prosecution of Zimmerman.
Here, the Martin family emerged as the noble victims, pressing big institutions such as the Sanford police department, local prosecutors and even Florida’s statewide law enforcement agencies to pay attention to their concerns.
Better, fuller context through diversity. In the early days of the case, as public pressure grew for Zimmerman’s arrest and prosecution, journalists of color added insights and urgency to the case by sharing their own experiences.
Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart wrote “one of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s suspicions,” recounting the instruction he got as a teen on how to deal with police to stay safe. Associated Press writer Jesse Washington, who covers race and ethnicity for the wire service, wrote about explaining the “black male code” to his 12-year-old son, instructing him on how to “go above and beyond” to show strangers he isn’t a threat.
Referencing Ralph Ellison’s classic novel The Invisible Man, the Miami Herald’s Pitts wrote, “That’s one of the great frustrations of African-American life, those times when you are standing right there, minding your business, tending your house, coming home from the store, and other people are looking right at you, yet do not see you.”
Some media figures of color obviously felt a personal stake in the Martin case that those unaffected by race prejudice or racial profiling may not have felt. And that led to some compelling pieces.
But was it fair for non-columnists and journalists who don’t express opinions to assume the case centered on racial profiling, when the man at the center of the case, shooter George Zimmerman, wasn’t telling his side of the story publicly, yet?
The push for scoops. Forget political bias; most journalism outlets are biased toward being first to break news, dominating the story everyone is talking about and influencing the direction of the story by continuing to reveal information no one else has.
As interest in the story began to explode, news outlets crossed a number of lines in trying to find new information, from CNN using audio analysis of a 911 call to mistakenly conclude Zimmerman used a racial slur, to ABC examining blurry video of Zimmerman’s arrival at police headquarters in Sanford the night of the shooting to mistakenly theorize he might not have been injured in a fight with Martin as he claimed.
Audiences concerned about the racial implications of the Martin story were seeking as much information as possible to understand what happened. But when reporting morphed from uncovering new facts to speculating on unverified claims, journalists wound up muddying the waters for news consumers, harming their own credibility in the process.
These three values, already in conflict as interest in the case began to heat up, collided with each other in earnest when the story took another turn:
The 911 tapes from the shooting were made public.
Police in Sanford had resisted releasing audio from 911 calls – including Zimmerman’s call while following Martin and calls from neighbors during their fight and the shooting -- saying the case was still under investigation. But they were made public March 16, supercharging national interest in a case which was already percolating on CNN, ABC News, local newspapers and in pockets of social media.
But even as this news story accelerated into the stratosphere, there were lessons about covering race to be learned from the trip.
A local TV news director once told me about the “myth of life” pitfall journalists can fall into while discerning what is newsworthy. He noted that too many journalists assume that news is defined as an event which violates the myths of how we think life should work – white suburbanites rarely are shot to death or black teens from poor neighborhoods often don’t get into Ivy League colleges.
But such attitudes can keep journalists from seeing news in what happens every day – even when what happens daily is so horrific it would make the front pages of newspapers in most every other city instantly. And social media can make the dynamic worse, as more comments and Twitter posts focus on similar issues.
Given the “myth of life” issues with mainstream press, it’s no wonder so many commentators addressing the Martin case tried to talk about racial profiling, the stereotyping of young black males, the history of law enforcement’s role in enabling profiling and more.
It’s a dynamic which only gets worse as online and social media speeds up the news cycle. With so few nuggets of news connected to the real questions the audience wants answered, a default for some media outlets can involve talking about ancillary issues, which distract and complicate.
Journalists are uniquely positioned to lead communities out of this trap, focusing on factual reporting and consciously working to sidestep misleading, “myth of life”-based attitudes.
Years ago, you might have space in a news event where the focus would first fall on fact-gathering and reporting the story, with follow-up pieces devoted to the implications of the news and connected issues.
But these days, that process runs together. In the Martin/Zimmerman case – when news consumers needed as many facts about the case as journalists could provide – they instead got commentary, fact-based reporting and prognostication all wrapped up in one, often-toxic ball.
Other problems with covering issues of race often fall into four categories:
Reflex – We cover issues a certain way because we’ve always done it that way. Trusting police reports too much or failing to see the news in a teenager killed could be a result.
Fear – We fear being criticized for unfairly injecting race into a story, particularly if it isn’t the central issue. One of the thorniest questions involves referencing race when it may not be the central issue in a story or may not be an issue at all.
Lack of history – We don’t understand the community we’re covering and their specific issues. Black residents in Sanford had specific gripes about how police treated them that many national media outlets didn’t discuss.
Avoidance – When a newsroom is diverse, sometimes staffers of color are expected to provide the bulk of coverage on issues relating to race. That’s not fair to the staffers or to the community, which deserves news outlets where every journalist is attentive to such stories and issues.
In the Martin case, the toughest task journalists may face is ignoring the perceptions and judgments of the outside world to focus on telling the most accurate, incisive stories possible.
Beyond its troubling facts, the story of Trayvon Martin’s death also stands out for the way it straddles so many growing trends; from frictions sparked by the increasing diversity of the nation’s under-18 youth (expected to be majority nonwhite by the year 2015) to the disappearance of traditional journalists from the biggest jobs in cable TV news and the growing influence of social media on the news cycle.
But in the midst of growing uncertainty and chaos, one comforting fact remains true. The organizations which excelled at covering this story provided the most accurate facts, told the public much that they didn’t know, kept their commentaries fair and resisted the temptation to turn their coverage into vehicles for self-promotion.
This story also taught many important lessons about covering race in media: Talking about race isn’t necessarily racist. Examining people of color and their unique view of diversity isn’t necessarily racist. Even biracial people such as Zimmerman often self-identify as members of a minority group. Acknowledging that isn’t racist, either.
For people of color, incidents like losing jobs, career setbacks, even traffic stops by the police can be an ambiguous experience. In other words, even when a situation doesn’t seem to be focused on race, sometimes you wonder.
One of the consequences of media diversity for white news consumers is that they will see more columns, commentary and stories created from these perspectives, which can feel so different from their own.
As the expanding world of digital media brings new voices into journalism’s mix, traditional news values can be an invaluable guide for news outlets providing coverage to meet this cultural moment.
The challenge to traditional journalists is to embrace those new voices, bringing new perspective, ideas and values to news coverage, while keeping the accuracy, ethical conduct and fairness required by top-notch reporting. All while holding an audience in the most competitive media environment in modern history.
If the Trayvon Martin case teaches us anything about media, it’s that the digital world’s ability to spread information and galvanize opinion means little without ethical, accurate fair-minded journalism to help everyone make sense of it all.
This is an abridged version of an essay appearing in Poynter's forthcoming book, "The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century," to be released in August. Eric Deggans will be speaking about this subject at Poynter on March 14; tickets are still available. You can also learn more about these issues in Eric's new book, "Race Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation."