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What can I teach journalism educators in talking about media coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting case?



3-26-12-trayvon-martin-rally_full_600.jpgCHICAGO -- "Are you tired of talking about it, yet?"

That's the question a fellow conference attendee asked me this morning, as I entered the Association for Education in Journalism's 95th annual conference. It was a natural response to what I had just told him; that I was speaking on a panel talking about media coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting and George Zimmerman prosecution.

Regular blog readers know I never get tired of talking about journalism issues, so my natural answer was an enthusiastic denial. But I took his point.

Back when Martin's case was consuming the media's full attention -- from March 19 to April 22, the Project for Excellence in Journalism calculated than the case consumed 14 percent of reports on major media outlets, more than anything but the presidential election -- it seemed this case was all anyone could talk about.

Why were police moving so slowly to charge a man who had shot dead an unarmed, black teenager? Why were news outlets stumbling over themselves in unfairly editing shooter Zimmerman's 911 call or presuming he uttered a racial slur while talking to the dispatcher?

blog_trayvonrally.jpgHow can Al Sharpton serve as both an anchor on MSNBC and an advocate for Martin's family? Why did the Business Insider website publish a post with material taken from a white supremacist web site which contained a photo purporting to be of Martin which was not him?

These days, the discussion of the Martin case seems to center on the question of whether Zimmerman can use the Stand Your Ground law to get his prosecution thrown out of court.

But I also think the way coverage evolved over time provided some important lessons for journalists in handling such hot button issues.

My panel doesn't start until 4:15 p.m. Florida time, but here's a quick preview:

aejmc-logo.jpgI think there's three journalism values which came into conflict as journalists rushed to cover this story: 1) Journalism's drive to be the voice of the voiceless and ensure justice works in our legal system, 2) the value of diverse perspectives in broadening news coverage, 3) The drive to present coverage that makes an impact in a hot news story, "owning" the subject for a news platform and its consumers.

Early on, before Zimmerman or any surrogates were speaking publicly, Martin's family blamed the police for moving slowly to charge Zimmerman and suspected their son's life wasn't being valued properly. We saw a rush to uncover any possible fact about the case and lots of stories about fears that people of color are subjected to undue attention from police.

cnn-ewok-and-stewart-via-screenshot.jpgI wrote about how the temptation to use public interest in the Martin case to talk about issues such as racial profiling and race in criminal justice issues sidetracked big chunks of the news establishment from what should have been their core focus -- providing as much context and factual reporting as possible around the case.

Instead, media outlets fractured along their methods for drawing audience and making an impact. Cable TV became a conduit for the most emotional, opinionated presentations; newspapers scrambled for every scrap of fact and scoop available; social media galvanized audiences, spread news of new developments instantly and helped mobilize activists on all sides of the issues.

Making all of this worse is our tendency to only talk about race issues in mainstream media when a crisis breaks out. Many mainstream news consumers probably didn't know anything about the Sikh community's problems with being mistaken for Muslims and discriminated against, until the recent shooting in a temple last week.

trayvon-zimmerman-web.jpgThat's often a problem in a news universe where race issues are treated like grenades -- explosive subjects to be handled with care and explored only when your full focus can be applied to the topic.

I think we've reached a cultural moment where race issues are subtler and more wide-ranging. We need to feel free to talk about race when it's not on the front burner -- when our passions are less heated and when more objectivity is possible.

With any luck, we'll tap a little of that spirit in the Chicago Mariott's Great America hall today.

Because the Trayvon Martin case offers a load of learning opportunities for journalists of the future -- if we're only willing to take a few moments and talk about it all one more time.


[Last modified: Friday, August 10, 2012 3:26pm]


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