October 23, 2012

If anyone asks why ethnic, cultural and gender diversity is important in journalism, advocates have a ready answer: Greater diversity equals greater accuracy and fairness.

This belief is based, in part, on bitter experience. From turn-of-the-century lynchings in the American South to the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights protests in the 1950s and ‘60s, U.S. history is filled with stories journalists got wrong because they excluded the perspectives of anyone who wasn’t a white male.

Coverage was so distorted during the civil rights era, newspapers such as the Tallahassee Democrat in Florida, the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky and the Hattiesburg American in Mississippi all apologized for their misguided work decades after the initial mistakes were made.

Beyond hurt feelings or appearances, a diverse newsroom better reflects the population, which enables fairer, more accurate or incisive reporting. But what if that idea isn’t entirely true?

Over the course of 2012, journalists faced a number of blockbuster news stories with race and culture difference at their core. And reporters stumbled over a host of pitfalls as their work was affected by the perspectives of those reporting the story and their audiences.
The shape of modern media has only multiplied these problems. With a range of politically partisan, specifically-targeted cable newschannels, social media platforms and websites adding to the noise, ethical journalists face even more complicated questions.

What separates an opinion journalist from a news reporter and a straight-up pundit? And what are the ethical requirements for each of these figures, especially in covering a race-based controversy?

In the age of Fox News Channel, the Huffington Post and Breitbart.com, is there such a thing as a completely honest broker in today’s news media?

This chapter will look at several race-centered news stories, examining the ethical flashpoints in each, suggesting better techniques going forward and exploring how these problems connect to larger issues at the intersection of race and journalism in the modern media age.

The biggest lesson at hand: leveraging diversity in newsrooms without ethical decision making, is a risky, partial solution.

Real success in covering race comes when perspectives are tempered by a clear strategy for preserving fairness and accuracy.

And the first story under examination, unsurprisingly, involves the fate of an unarmed 17-year-old male shot dead while walking back from a convenience store in a small, central Florida town.

Case Study: Dissecting Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman

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 on Feb. 26, 2012 while walking to an apartment 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 he felt his life was in jeopardy.

But one of the first reports on the shooting, an 86-word piece printed in the Orlando Sentinel 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 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. …

Early Problems

Because people want race issues to be simple, often news stories centered on race are crafted simply, as well. 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 ethical journalism, unless reporters are careful.

In the Trayvon Martin case, journalists quickly found themselves balancing conflicts between several different journalism values.

1) 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 prosecution of Zimmerman.

2) Accuracy and fuller context through diversity: In the early days of the case, as calls 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.

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.”

What’s obvious, is that some media figures of color felt a personal stake in the Martin case that those unaffected by race prejudice or racial profiling may not have felt. And it 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?

3) The need for accurate, yet impactful coverage: 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.

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.

Lessons learned

The most maddening part of the Trayvon Martin shooting is a question which may never be fully answered: Was this killing motivated at all by race?

Absent direct evidence, the struggle for answers often pushed media into a fight over the images of both victim and killer.

If Zimmerman could be shown to have racial bias in his past, perhaps he acted on those biases when he saw a 17-year-old black kid he didn’t recognize in his housing development. If Martin could be shown as a “thug” – which increasingly seems a nice way of saying “violent, criminally inclined person of color” – then perhaps he was the one who began the confrontation which ended in his death.

This leads to one of biggest problems in covering race for journalists: the temptation to try and “prove” the person at the center of a controversial story is racist.

The impulse isn’t just misguided because it is often impossible to judge someone’s thinking on race by outside factors; such notions also assume that only bigots can act on unfair prejudices.

It is entirely possible that a person who doesn’t usually prejudge people of color might do so in a special circumstance – say, encountering that type of person at night on the street in a neighborhood where burglaries have been a problem. One of the early statements Zimmerman made in his 911 call was to tell the police dispatcher the area had a problem with break-ins.

Still, if trying to read minds is one of the biggest pitfalls of race coverage, the next biggest problem is equally troublesome: We only talk about race issues on a national level in a crisis.

I’ve written about this issue in the Tampa Bay Times and my own book, 2012’s “Race-Baiter”; too often, the impulse in race-tinged controversies is to hang lots of ancillary discussions on the event, because this is the only time the world is really paying attention.

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, too many journalists assumed that news was defined as events which violate the myths of how we think life should work – white suburbanites rarely are shot to death or black teens from poor neighborhoods never 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.

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 enforcements 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 can distract and complicate.

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 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 injecting race into a story, particularly if it isn’t the central issue.
  • Lack of history – We don’t understand the community we’re covering and their specific issues. Black resident 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 this situation, the toughest task a journalist may face is ignoring the perceptions and judgments of the outside world to focus on telling the most accurate, incisive story possible.

This paper is being presented at a Poynter journalism ethics symposium in New York today at the Paley Center for Media, in partnership with craigconnnects, the Web-based initiative created by Craig Newmark. The event — which features John Paton, Clay Shirky, Eric Deggans, Ann Friedman, Gilad Lotan, Vadim Lavrusik, danah boyd, David Folkenflik and more — is being live streamed here. You can also follow and participate at #poynterethics, and catch up on the highlights in the Storify. || Related papers to be presented: Clay Shirky, “We are indeed less willing to agree on what constitutes truth” | danah boyd: Fear undermines an informed citizenry | These essays and symposium are part of a book on digital ethics to be published by Poynter and CQ Press.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.

More News

Back to News


Comments are closed.