How to cover Trayvon Martin killing: Report on 'racial tension' and look beyond the hoodie

There are a lot of questions in the Trayvon Martin case that may take journalists days and weeks to help answer. But there are steps they can take immediately to make their reporting clearer and less biased.

Much of the coverage has featured coded language that leaves readers with confusion rather than clarity and impressions rather than facts. News organizations, for instance, have reported that the Department of Justice said its community relations service will meet with officials, civil rights leaders and authorities in Sanford, Fla., this week to "calm racial tensions" nearly a month after the 17-year-old African American was shot.

But I haven’t seen much detail about what this tension entails. The phrase “racial tensions” does little to inform people unless we substantiate it with facts and evidence.

“I think the coded language masks some lack of in-depth understanding of the issues,” said Dori Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. “When I hear ‘there are racial tensions,’ a.) I don't know what that means, b.) I don't know why there are tensions.”

"Tensions," she pointed out, is a nebulous word.

“It tells me that people who don’t share the same ethnic or racial background are at odds with each other, but really? All of them are?" Maynard said by phone. "There’s too much room for fill in the blank. I think as audience members, all of us are going to fill in the blank differently.”

Here's what journalists could report on to better explain what they mean by "racial tensions":

  • The racial composition of Sanford and the particular community where Martin lived. What do the demographics reveal about the community, if anything?
  • Whether there have been racially motivated crimes in the community, and whether black suspects have been unfairly treated. The Miami Herald reported that the Sanford Police Department "was accused of giving favorable treatment to relatives of officers involved in violent encounters with blacks." It seems there's more reporting to do.
  • Whether Martin's shooter, George Zimmerman, targeted young black men when calling police. Several news organizations have reported that Zimmerman called police 46 times since January 2011. The Miami Herald reported that neighbors say he was fixated on crime and targeted young black men. I haven’t seen any stories, though, referring to police reports that substantiate this.
  • The way we describe Martin and Zimmerman. When reporters start using phrases such as “racial tensions,” the relevance of race becomes heightened, and so does the need for clarity. Are we talking about racial tensions between white police and black community members? Racial tensions between blacks and Hispanics? It's unclear. Some have said that Zimmerman is white, some have said he’s Hispanic, some have said he’s both. This inconsistency adds to the confusion. When Zimmerman is described as a "neighborhood watch captain" does that confer a degree of authority or legitimacy that affects how people perceive the shooting?

This isn't an easy story to cover, and journalists have done a good job covering various aspects of it. The Washington Post published an insightful column about black males carrying the weight of other people's suspicions; the Miami Herald took a detailed look at the 911 tapes; and the Orlando Sentinel offered a helpful explanation of Florida's "Stand Your Ground Law," which is at the center of this case.

The special challenge of the hoodie

There's room for improvement, though, particularly when it comes to the descriptions of Martin. Several news stories have noted that Martin was wearing a hoodie the night he was shot. Shortly before shooting Martin, Zimmerman told police that Martin looked “suspicious” because “he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and walking slowly in the rain," ABC News reported.

News stories have published a close-up photo of Martin wearing a white hooded sweatshirt, the hood pulled up over his head. Monday evening, ABC News closed its story of him with that image. Fewer stories have pointed out that Zimmerman was also wearing a hoodie.

The fact that Martin was wearing a hoodie doesn’t reveal much about him.

“I think it's more revealing that he had Skittles, if you're going to talk about who he was,” Maynard said. “A hoodie tells me what the weather conditions were. Skittles tell me about a child.” The Skittles also set up a striking juxtaposition: Martin was "armed with a package of Skittles and an iced tea"; Zimmerman was armed with a gun.

This isn’t the first time news outlets have mentioned hooded sweatshirts when describing young black men. The style dates back to the decorative hoods that monks wore in the Medieval Times, but in recent years has been associated with gang members.

“It’s a major stereotype of gang members in particular, and it has escalated to the point where it has become a descriptor for young black and Hispanic criminals,” said Kenny Irby, senior faculty for visual journalism & diversity programs at Poynter, who also runs “The Write Field,” a Poynter community project with the Tampa Bay Rays aimed at helping young black men in St. Petersburg, Fla., express themselves through writing. "Like bling and grills, hoodies are used to distinguish young individuals who are involved in questionable activities.” Today in New York City, there's a "Million Hoodies March" to honor Martin and show that "a black person in a hoodie isn't automatically 'suspicious.'"

Hooded sweatshirts often show up in hip-hop music videos, further perpetuating stereotypes, Irby said.

“It used to be baseball caps. These garments of clothing take on a meaning and persona in contemporary society that are, for the most part, glorified by videos and pop culture,” Irby told me. “I think they expand into identifying a particular group of people connected with a particular series of actions.”

In an essay last year, NABJ's Bob Butler said coverage of boys and men of color typically centers on entertainment, sports and crime. And most often, descriptions of young men wearing “hoodies” makes people think of black suspects -- even though people from a variety of races wear them.

“Not only does this present a distorted image of this particular population, it also serves to instill fear in the wider society,” he wrote.

Butler quoted Maynard, who said, "The problem is that just as the media and police descriptions imprint on our minds the notion that black male equals criminal, so too have they taught us that black male plus hoodie equals imminent danger.”

News sites have also mentioned Martin’s hoodie in stories about the phone call Martin made to his girlfriend shortly before he was shot. His girlfriend told ABC News: “He said this man was watching him, so he put his hoodie on.” The quote suggests that Martin thought he was in danger and was perhaps using the hoodie to help protect or hide himself.

In an NPR essay, the Center for Inspired Teaching's Cosby Hunt said the media coverage of Martin wearing a hooded sweatshirt reminds him of his own children and the conversations he and his wife will need to have with them. His 3-year-old son Ellington wears a Batman hoodie with ears as often as he can, and sometimes sleeps with it on. His older son Freeman also wears hooded sweatshirts.

"We did not plan to give them advice about hoodies, but now I see we'll need to have that talk, too," Hunt writes. "We will have [to] say, 'You know how you used to wear your hooded Batman sweatshirt when you wanted to fight the bad guys as a kid? Well, now that you're older, some people will be confused and think that you are the bad guys if they see your hoodie and your skin color. It's silly and wrong that anyone would think that you are the bad guys, but we don't want you to be hurt. We don't want the real bad guys or even some guy playing superhero to hurt you.' "

When deciding whether to describe criminals as wearing a hooded sweatshirt, journalists should question how much this description will add to a story. Does it reveal something important about the suspect? Would you be as inclined to say the criminal was wearing a white T-shirt, a blue Polo shirt, a corduroy jacket? Would you be inclined to mention the hoodie if the suspect were Caucasian?

News outlets have been using a few different photos of Martin, including one of him wearing a red Hollister T-shirt, a football jersey and the white hoodie. Irby said that given the stigma around hoodies, it’s smart to have conversations about whether to feature the photo of Martin wearing one.

“There are a number of images that the family has made available, and I think we have to question why journalists continue to present that same image and not new information or new images that represent the individual in a more complete way,” Irby said. “We have to be willing to ask good questions. Are we perpetuating stereotypes, and are we pursuing a range of options? There are other options out there.”

Editor's note: Some news organizations have been using the word "murder" to describe what happened to Martin, while others are using "death." We chose to use "murder" initially and changed it to "killing" based on our reporting.

Also related: News University's free course, "Handling Race & Ethnicity"

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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