One year after Trayvon Martin's shooting death, have media learned anything more about covering race?
It’s a pretty simple question: One year after the shooting death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin became a world-famous story, have media learned anything about covering race or talking about racial issues?
Still, ask some of the people at ground zero of one of the biggest stories of 2012, and you get a surprisingly complex suite of answers, focused mostly on how individual behavior may have changed, but big media’s habit of avoiding big questions about race outside of major news stories has not.
“We have seen other suspected shootings that again don’t get the same kind of attention,” said CNN and TV One analyst Roland Martin, a longtime advocate on African American issues who noted the death of an unarmed black teen at the hands of armed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman hasn’t produced a wave of coverage looking at similar cases.
“That’s why you have to have strong, non-traditional, non-mainstream voices trumpeting these issues,” added Martin, who took to social media and spoke out about the case on his Washington Watch show before mainstream media outlets warmed to the story. “When I look at the people who are hosting shows, the lack of black executive producers, the lack of black senior producers…Unfortunately, the people running networks are not understanding how significant these issues are."
Curiously, that might be one of the only points where Martin might find agreement with Mark O’Mara, the Orlando-area lawyer who began representing Zimmerman after his April arrest and has established an array of online platforms to push out news, commentary and feature donation appeals for his client.
Saying Zimmerman has been the target of an orchestrated publicity campaign to portray him as a racist, O’Mara also lamented that the focus on Zimmerman has hamstrung larger conversations about race and criminal justice system.
“Here’s my frustration with the whole case …I have done criminal defense work for 30 years, and have represented dozens of young black males and seen how the system doesn’t respect their rights,” O’Mara said. “Let’s use that as a springboard…(so) we have a focal point on what’s happening to young black males in the system.”
His fear: regardless of the verdict against his client, the larger conversation on race and criminal justice gets lost. “Now that we have tied the national conversation to George Zimmerman…if he gets acquitted, it’s a civil rights fiasco,” O’Mara said. “If he gets acquitted –and he should get acquitted—whites are going to say, ‘I told you he never should have been charged anyway.’ And blacks will say ‘This is BS.’”
On Feb. 26 of 2012, an unarmed, 17-year-old Martin was shot dead by Zimmerman after a fight in a subdivision in Sanford, Fla. Following perfunctory initial press coverage of the death, Martin’s family hired an attorney and began speaking to the media, alleging that police and prosecutors were moving slowly because of their son’s race.
By the end of March, the story had become the second most-covered topic of the year, behind the presidential election. MSNBC anchor Al Sharpton became a spokesman for Martin’s family and in early 2013, the channel’s president told the website Mediaite that their audience with black viewers grew 60 percent in prime time – in part by aggressively covering stories black viewers care about, such as the Martin shooting and voter ID laws.
Frances Robles, who was the Miami Herald’s lead reporter on the Martin/Zimmerman case through 2012, said the biggest problem she encountered didn’t involve race, but basic journalism values – too many outlets were repeating information from her stories without attribution, especially on cable TV and online.
Along the way, they spread misinformation about the case which remains lodged in the minds of some people.
Now working for the New York Times, Robles recalled a conversation with a police officer where every detail he cited about the case was incorrect, including a belief that Martin was dressed in black like a possible burglar, that the teen had been arrested before, and more.
“There’s a lot of pundits who talk about things that they don’t know to be true, and it gets accepted as truth,” Robles said, noting that pushback against the narrative that Martin may have been an innocent teen was especially aggressive on cable TV and online platforms. “The right wing machinery did a good job of turning the story around. They put a lot of doubt in people’s minds about what happened.”
A veteran journalist of Puerto Rican heritage, Robles said she grew up in the Howard Beach section of Queens, New York in the mid-1980s, and lived across the street from one of the white teens accused of participating in a beating of three black men which led to the death of one.
Recalling how some journalists back then seemed to have the story already settled in their minds before doing interviews, Robles was determined not to make the same mistakes when she was approaching sources for her work on the Martin case.
“Other than 9/11 or a story like that, I don’t think it’s healthy or good for any (story)…especially a criminal case, to dominate television and the media in that way” she said. “I don’t think you end up educating the public. You end up miseducating the public.”
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Jesse Washington, who covers race and ethnicity for the Associated Press, said the Trayvon Martin case forced journalists to face a lot of thorny questions, including the need to be careful about making assumptions about anything in a story, including the ethnicity of the subjects.
Early on, media outlets reported Zimmerman was a white man, in part because that was the ethnicity listed on the Sanford police report. But Zimmerman’s driver’s license and voting registration listed his race as Hispanic; eventually journalists learned his mother was Peruvian and his father was Caucasian.
Washington recalled sending a message on Twitter about the story that said, essentially, unarmed black teen shot by white neighborhood watch captain, no arrest. “It was Twitter; I have 140 characters, so I boiled the story down to its essence,” said. “But even though I was not saying it was a racial situation, that (tweet) could have fueled that belief.”
Washington continued: “Jesse Jackson said it point blank: Trayvon Martin was killed because he was black. But all due respect to Reverend Jackson…we don’t know that…The question has to be asked, but it needs to be asked in a way that doesn’t inflame things.”
At the Orlando Sentinel, editor Mark Russell admits the newspaper was slow to jump on the Martin story – like many other news outlets – in part because they had few reporting resources there. Now the newspaper has doubled its reporters in the Sanford area to four people, with many more planned to get involved should Zimmerman’s trial start on June 10 as planned (he has a hearing scheduled April 22, in which self defense issues such as the Stand Your Ground law will be considered).
Russell touted the newspaper’s eight-part series, “In the Shadow of Race” as an attempt to tackle the many issues raised by the story, from Sanford’s troubled racial history to attempts by family members of Martin and Zimmerman to shape the media narrative and issues of racial identity.
“What we learned is we need to be much more embedded in the communities we cover,” he said. “We had come to realize we had this community right on the edge of Orlando, they look like newspaper readers and people who would subscribe to our digital product, but we didn’t have enough people out there to cover them.”
Zimmerman’s attorney O’Mara may have changed how other lawyers handle big cases with major media coverage, establishing a website and Twitter feed for the case which offers everything from links to motions filed and a website for donations to a refutation of opinion pieces written by Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart.
In one piece there, for example, he calls the April 22 hearing a "self-defense immunity hearing," avoiding the Stand Your Ground phrase, though he'll likely invoke it's immunity provisions to try convincing a judge to throw out the murder charge.
“I don’t know that its helped a lot (with media accuracy); I still see people creating news on this case, taking a snippet from a hearing that happens to be a sexy soundbite,” said O’Mara. “Media has gone from Walter Cronkite to TMZ; if you’re not out there first with the story, you’re ignored.”
But much as O’Mara complained about the race-based allegations made by attorneys for Martin’s family and civil rights leaders, Roland Martin said the lack of similar coverage for similar cases indicates that such high profile advocates are still needed to ensure that questionable shootings are fully vetted.
“People complain about civil rights leaders and advocates getting involved, but if you don’t have advocates who able to get media attention, you’re not going to get results,” he said. “And I hope these media executives are paying attention. Because if you continue to have your newsrooms looking like 1950s America, you’ll get left out in the cold.”