Trayvon Martin


Ebony editor: ‘The extremists are the ones with the megaphone’

When a Florida jury pronounced George Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin on July 13, Ebony magazine Editor-in-Chief Amy Barnett had to cope with two surprises:

First, she didn’t expect that the former neighborhood watch captain would completely escape punishment for shooting Martin, famously bearing just a can of iced tea and a bag of candy.

And she had a magazine which had to be put to bed in just eight days. What to do?

What Barnett eventually did, was scramble her staff to pull together an 18-page look at the issues raised by the verdict, including four separate cover shots featuring Martin’s parents and their surviving son, along with NBA star Dwayne Wade, filmmaker Spike Lee and actor Boris Kodjoe — each posing with their sons in gray, hooded sweatshirts to symbolize the “hoodie” Martin wore the night of his death.

The headline on each: “We are Trayvon” (excepting the cover featuring Martin’s parents, which reads: “We are all Trayvon.”)

“It was a team effort,” Barnett said of the decision to go with the four covers. “We were thinking about what society would be talking about. Trayvon has become a symbol for African American youth… The idea is that all our kids are Trayvon.” Read more


Pew: 31% of tweets reflected anger following Zimmerman verdict

Pew Research Center

The Pew Research Center analyzed nearly 5 million tweets in the first 26 hours after the George Zimmerman verdict. Pew found that 39 percent of the tweets shared news sans opinion. Of the 38 percent of tweets that reflected opinions, 31 percent expressed opposition or anger and 7 percent supported the verdict.

Pew’s Mark Jurkowitz and Nancy Vogt explain:

The sentiments decrying the verdict were often emotional and frequently evoked a racial subtext, according to an analysis of the Twitter response to the trial outcome from 10 p.m. July 13 to midnight on July 14. Among that group, the largest component (15% of the Twitter reaction ) was criticism of the criminal justice system, including charges that it is biased against African Americans. Another 14% accused Zimmerman of wrong-doing, such as deliberately profiling Martin. And 2% spoke of Trayvon Martin as an innocent victim.

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George Zimmerman, Shellie Zimmerman

Can stories like the Zimmerman trial point to a better journalism?

The verdict in the George Zimmerman trial and juror B-37’s interview with CNN reveal what may be the greatest challenge to modern newsrooms on socially divisive issues: how best to get different communities to engage with each other.

Since Trayvon Martin’s death became a flashpoint in early 2012, news organizations have excelled at highlighting poignant, diverse voices offering up their analysis and personal experience. Fabulous writers penned passionate arguments. Social media gave rise to creative commentary. We all participated in the debate — the most committed of us by demonstrating, the rest of us by talking with each other face-to-face and sharing and commenting on social media. Now, the revelations about one juror’s point of view are sparking even more conversations about how our individual experiences inform our views.

And yet, we are as divided as ever. By democratizing publishing, the Internet and social media promised that we could all have a platform. But all those platforms seem to have made us even less likely to listen to those with whom we disagree.

Can journalism do anything to bridge this great divide? As the news media evolve, will newsrooms embrace the tasks of bringing people together and helping them talk things out as a way of distinguishing journalism from other sources of information? The challenge will be to do so in a way that invites diversity, even while our newsrooms are more willing to embrace reporting and writing from a particular point of view.

Pew Research Center tells us that only 26 percent of Americans say they prefer their news from a point of view on a regular basis. Yet that doesn’t seem to hold true for issues as polarizing as the Zimmerman trial. Consumption of information about the trial tracked much higher among black people than white people. Interest peaked after the verdict was announced, with 44 percent of a sample of Americans tracking the coverage on Sunday.

At the same time, the conversation about media has become an unfortunate referendum on whether most newsrooms are liberal and capable of fairness or even basic accuracy. While these are fair questions to ask, it’s overly simplistic to suggest that all newsrooms were inadequate in the Zimmerman trial because a few newsrooms made mistakes both big and small.

Critics suggested that every news organization that made room for a black voice talking about the danger young black men face was guilty of liberal bias. Or even that every newsroom that framed the story as one of race was incapable of fairness.

While there are certainly debates to be had about story frames, today’s flood of opinion is here to stay. On most news sites, articles written from a point of view and personal narratives dominate the lists of most-shared stories — and they’re easier and cheaper to produce for 24-hour cable newsrooms and digital and print outlets alike.

By embracing community as a core guiding principle, newsrooms could use coverage of divisive moments such as Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s trial to create a more robust exchange of ideas, a search for common ground, or some other measurable improvement for a community.

The best articulation of this expression of journalism came during a symposium last October at the Paley Center in New York, where Poynter gathered thought leaders to help shape a new set of Guiding Principles for Journalists.

Here’s how Mónica Guzmán, Seattle Times columnist and GeekWire contributor, described her vision of newsroom evolution:

Forever, the product of journalism has been the article, the photo, the essay, the content. The digital ecosystem today is asking us why can’t the product of journalism be the community? Why can’t that be the space where we do our work? If the mission of journalism is to inform the public for the civic good, but citizens are showing us they can inform themselves with the right tools and the right guidance, then the community should be as much a product of what we do, as much an end, as anything else. The differentiator for other industries is they think of the community as a means to an end. But for journal­ism, the community should be an end.

What would that vision look like? It would be different for every community and every newsroom, but certainly there would be more virtual chats, more moderated conversations, and more live events hosted by journalists.

Maybe it would look more like The Orlando Sentinel’s series In the Shadow of Race, which included a live community forum.

“Rather than think almost exclusively about serving [readers] with content, what else can [newsrooms] be doing to help them become more self-empowered information seekers and sharers?” Guzmán asked by email this week.

Guzmán and many others who have embraced this idea believe that it will be particularly effective and helpful for local newsrooms to go beyond just providing information.

“Innovators must now create tools that will help strengthen geographically bounded communities,” Steven Waldman writes in The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century, the book that grew out of last fall’s gathering. Waldman was a founder of Beliefnet, one of the first sites built around the idea that content would help communities interact and grow. In 1999, he notes, getting audiences organized around and involved in content was controversial. Now, it’s a legitimate model for news.

But the next steps in serving communities aren’t as clear or obvious.

“People expect to participate, and media managers must make it easier for readers to interact with each other, the news organization and other institutions in the community,” Waldman writes. “News organizations will become, in effect, community service organizations of a new kind and the process will become truly valuable.”

Just as the rise of opinion has transformed our content, serving communities will transform our newsrooms and ultimately our communities. We see glimpses of this in news start-ups that routinely pull off effective events, such as the Texas Tribune or MinnPost.

But the real experiments with community have yet to begin in earnest. Now is as good a time as any for that experimentation to start. And this issue of race and justice is a topic that cries out for something more than what we have.

The Poynter Institute’s book The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century will be available Aug. 1. This compilation of essays is edited by Poynter’s Kelly McBride and The American Press Institute’s Tom Rosenstiel. The book features a new framework for ethical decision-making among journalists and those who care about democracy. On August 15, McBride will host a News University Webinar about the book. Read more

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George Zimmerman Trial

Zimmerman attorney says he plans to move quickly in lawsuit against NBC

The Washington Post | USA Today | The Huffington Post | Journal-isms

George Zimmerman plans to move quickly against NBC now that he’s been found not guilty, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple reports. Zimmerman attorney James Beasley told Wemple:

“We’re going to start in earnest asap, we just have to get the stay lifted which is a ministerial act.”

Following Saturday night’s verdict, Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mara answered questions from reporters. While talking with them, O’Mara blamed the media for turning Zimmerman into a “monster.”

He was like a patient in an operating table where mad scientists were committing experiments on him and he had no anesthesia. He didn’t know why he was turned into this monster but quit honestly, you guys had a lot to do with it. You took a story that was fed to you and you ran with it, and you ran right over him.

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Why Gawker contributor posted photo of Trayvon Martin’s body

Gawker | Bad Journalist.

Adam Weinstein writes on Gawker that his motivation for posting a photo of Trayvon Martin’s dead body (which you will see if you click that link) was “Good old-fashioned rage.” A tipster sent him the image last night, which Weinstein said he didn’t see on TV. His source told him it ran on MSNBC for a “second or two,” Weinstein wrote in an email to Poynter, after people in the court considering charges against George Zimmerman saw it. Read more

George Zimmerman

Pointers journalists should keep in mind when covering the Zimmerman trial

As media coverage of George Zimmerman’s murder trial begins this week, we already know a few things that will happen.

Tiny Sanford, Fla., will become the center of the media universe, with hundreds of journalists expected to travel to the Seminole County Courthouse for the trial of the Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old black teenager Trayvon Martin, kicking off international protests when police hesitated to prosecute him.

Media outlets, which staked out a position on the incident when coverage exploded in March 2012, will likely echo it in their work now. So expect liberal-focused MSNBC to follow the lead of anchor Rev. Al Sharpton, who was a spokesman for Martin’s family while also hosting his 6 p.m. show on the newschannel last year. As Mediaite columnist Matt Wilstein noted, MSNBC needs the ratings boost from people of color, which could come from championing the Martin family’s perspective now.

Similarly, conservative Fox News Channel anchor Sean Hannity, who has been close to Zimmerman from the case’s earliest days, will likely echo the right-leaning channel’s skepticism that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin, backing his claim of self-defense.

And CNN sister channel HLN, which saw daytime ratings spike 111 percent last month during coverage of Jodi Arias’ murder trial, will seek to capture lightning in a bottle again with saturation Zimmerman coverage. (Already Monday, as potential jurors filled out questionnaires and prepared for questions, the channel had a special graphic image assuring viewers it is “Watching Zimmerman trial” even when there’s no footage or reporting from that proceeding onscreen).

Despite telling me that he expected Zimmerman coverage to boost HLN’s ratings, top executive Scot Safon demurred when asked how star Nancy Grace — known for favoring prosecutors in her coverage of most trials — might land on this case.

But despite what we know will happen, there are a few lessons for journalists in what has already happened in Zimmerman/Martin coverage.

Here’s my list of stuff I hope journalists and pundits keep in mind while trying to fill time during what some commentators are already trying to dub the civil rights trial of the decade.

Easy as it is to focus on racial issues, the case’s legal issues may be very different. There will be lots of talk about the racial issues raised by the Zimmerman/Martin case, for two reasons: it’s very hard to get people to focus on difficult conversations about race, and the trial’s early days will focus on the tedious process of jury selection.

Did police drag their feet in investigating the case because of Martin’s race? Did Florida officials cave to public pressure and bring an unfair prosecution? Did the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground law encourage police to move slowly? Is this just another case of a black person killed in Florida for being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Those are valid questions, but the verdict in this case will mostly depend on the answer to a simpler one: Can prosecutors prove Zimmerman was the aggressor in the fight that ended with Martin’s death?

They will certainly ask if Zimmerman zeroed in on Martin because of his race, youth and appearance. And the lawyers may tussle — without admitting it directly, of course — over the racial makeup of the jury, knowing people of color may be more sympathetic to charges of racial profiling. But with Zimmerman’s defense so far declining to use the Stand your Ground law as a defense, some of the biggest issues raised by the shooting regarding race and law enforcement may not come into play without a witness or proof that refutes Zimmerman’s claim of how the fight started.

Consumers will need journalism that gets to the heart of the legal case presented, without getting lost in the ancillary issues referenced by the case, important though they are. Spending too much time on those outside issues may leave consumers so ill-informed about the actual case that the jury’s decision will come as a surprise, as happened in the Casey Anthony trial.

Different media outlets take on different roles in the Zimmerman/Martin case. Last year, the print media offered some of the best coverage of facts in the case, especially as newspapers such as The Orlando Sentinel and The Miami Herald competed to own the story. Television was a home for more emotional coverage, especially in morning television and cable TV newschannels, where pundits could argue through endless segments, using arguments that may or may not have been accurate.

Blogs were a home for some of the most obsessive coverage on the case, as independent writers sifted through mountains of publicly available evidence in ways even professional journalists didn’t necessarily have time to attempt. Social media became an area for activism and a quick way to push people to sign petitions, show up for protests, spread word about controversial statements and marshal public response.

Knowing how these platforms worked last year can help consumers and journalist sort through coverage now. Especially as the trial heats up and the opinions fly.

Media should be careful about being used. Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mara’s release of controversial pictures from Martin’s cellphone produced the coverage you’d expect, highlighting photos of guns, marijuana plants and the teen flipping off the camera.

But as O’Mara argued a futile motion last week to include the material in his opening statements, his actions seemed to go beyond trying to reach potential members of the jury pool with damaging information about the teen through news coverage.

His actions also sent a message to prosecutors: This is the material we have if you try to make Martin look like a saint. Since potential jurors aren’t sequestered, media coverage may still have an impact during jury selection; journalists seeking to be fair should be careful about what they report and providing a balanced picture.

Diversity can add context and accuracy, but only when balanced with other journalism values. Last year, journalists of color were indispensable in spreading word about the situation as authorities let 44 days pass before charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder.

The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, The New York Times’ Charles Blow, The Associated Press’ Jesse Washington and Trymaine Lee (then at The Huffington Post’s Black Voices website, now at MSNBC) are all African American columnists who spread word early about the Zimmerman case and/or developed potent stories about the racial implications of the case. But such perspectives also have to be balanced with accuracy and fairness.

NBC News, facing a lawsuit from Zimmerman for errors made in editing audio of his 911 call to police for broadcast, now finds itself regularly announcing during its current coverage on MSNBC and other outlets that the network faces legal action from the guy it’s reporting on.

Having to remind viewers of a huge past mistake every time you cover one of the biggest stories of the day is a good argument for keeping an eye on the facts in this case, even amid the pressure for scoops and impact.

There are more details on race and media coverage in the Zimmerman/Martin case within my new book, “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation”; details here. Read more

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George Zimmerman

How news organizations are covering Day 1 of the Zimmerman trial

George Zimmerman’s trial for murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin began Monday in Sanford, Fla., with jury selection.

• The Orlando Sentinel has a Twitter account for the trial, and it’s a good follow; it aggregates tweets from journalists and others. The Sentinel, like other outlets including The Huffington Post, are running live coverage from the trial.

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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 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. Read more


George Zimmerman sues NBC over editing of 911 call about Trayvon Martin

Lawyers for George Zimmerman, who has been charged in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, announced Thursday that their defendant has sued NBC for defamation.

Zimmerman is also suing two people fired by the network and an owned-and-operated affiliate for their role in airing edited audio of a 911 call that was made before the shooting. Also being sued is one person still employed by the network, as well as the network itself.

As Andrew Beaujon reported in October, when sources told the New York Post such a suit was imminent,

NBC broadcast three reports using audio edited to make it appear Zimmerman said, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” The first report was produced by WTVJ in Miami, which fired reporter Jeff Burnside, who was involved in editing it. “Today” broadcast a report apparently influenced by WTVJ’s that edited the audio the same way; reporter Lilia Luciano lost her job with the network after that. The [Ron] Allen report was broadcast after those two, and apparently used the same audio track as the second.

Zimmerman’s suit names Burnside, Luciano and Allen, who is still employed by NBC. Read more


Trymaine Lee: New MSNBC gig is a chance to ‘flex different muscles’

Maynard Institute
Trymaine Lee, the Huffington Post reporter who helped move the Trayvon Martin story into the mainstream, is taking a job at MSNBC.

Reached by phone, Lee told Poynter he was taking most of November off to spend time with his daughter, who was born in August. His exact role at MSNBC “will be tightened” after he gets there, he said, but he expects to focus on what he said were “issues that are important to progressives,” such as gun rights and gun control.

As a police reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Lee was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its Hurricane Katrina coverage. He also contributed reporting to The New York Times’ Pultizer Prize-winning coverage of Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s downfall, Richard Prince writes. Read more

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