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. Read more