What’s Driving the Outrage Over Trayvon?
April 6, 2012
“In the wake of the media blackout imposed last week by Angela Corey, the newly appointed special prosecutor investigating February’s fatal shooting of black Florida teen Trayvon Martin, the media [have] had no choice but to cover the story surrounding the story,” Meghan Daum wrote Thursday in the Los Angeles Times. “This would include the widespread public demonstrations, the evolution of the ‘hoodie’ as a symbolic rallying point, and the emergence of protest T-shirts adorned with phrases like ‘I Am Trayvon’ and ‘Justice for Trayvon,’ both of which Martin’s mother is trying to have trademarked.”
The debate over media coverage of the Martin killing was first over how long it took the story to gain national attention. Now it’s about the quantity and content of that coverage. Earlier, the question was, “Where’s the outrage?” Now, it’s, “What’s driving the outrage?”
The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported on Tuesday, “The Trayvon Martin shooting is the public’s top story for the second consecutive week. But interest in the teenager’s death is deeply divided along partisan, as well as racial, lines. These differences also are apparent in reactions to news coverage of the incident: Far more Republicans (56%) than Democrats (25%) say there has been too much coverage of Martin’s death.”
On Tuesday, Columbia Journalism Review spotlighted West Orlando News Online in Orange County, Fla., one of the rare hyperlocal news sites founded by an African American.
For founder Keith Longmore, “the mainstream media’s coverage of the Martin case has verged on irresponsible,” Alysia Santo wrote for CJR. “Longmore specifically objects to the insinuation that Martin instigated the shooting.” Referring to the shooter, neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, the story continued, ” ’[Media coverage has] all been about this poor Zimmerman, being beaten by a 17 year old kid,’ says Longmore. From the media’s focus on the marijuana found on Martin and his subsequent suspension from school, to the reports that Martin hit Zimmerman first, Longmore feels the coverage skirts the reality of this situation.”
In the New York Times on Monday, media writer David Carr criticized ” . . . the same reflexive vigilantism that some are attributing to George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon. All over the Internet and on cable TV, posses are forming, positions are hardening and misinformation is flourishing. Instead of debating how we as a culture are going to proceed, an increasingly partisan system of news and social media has factionalized and curdled.”
Responding in the Atlantic under the headline, “In Defense of the Media’s Coverage of Trayvon Martin,” Elspeth Reeve wrote, “. . . Carr is right about the ugly reactions sparked by the Martin case — the Daily Caller seems to be implying that some slangy tweets mean the kid deserved to die, for instance — but look away from the Twitter console and get out of the back alleys of the Internet, and the country does not seem so divided by the case. A CNN poll found 73 percent of Americans want to see Zimmerman arrested last week. Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, published a story titled, ‘Al Sharpton Is Right’ on March 23.
“The Internet may make it easier to find the opinions of jerks — people tweeting slurs against Martin, or threats of violence against Zimmerman — but that doesn’t mean there are more jerks because of the Web.”
Kevin Benz, chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association, spoke to the issue of craft. “We journalists have not done a good job covering this heated, sensitive set of events,” he wrote on the RTDNA site. “We have rushed to paint the story as too simply explained by racism, we have rushed to judgment on whether an arrest should be made, we have given enormous time to the loudest voices and spent precious little time digging for new perspectives or analyzing the laws and community standards in question.”
Benz offered some constructive suggestions — six, in fact. Then he added, “Truthful, fair analysis is needed now more than ever. It is time to talk to your newsroom about our journalistic values and principles. It is time to be transparent with our audience, it is time to educate and calm our communities.”
Columbia Journalism Review seemed to offer the sober analysis Benz sought. On Monday, CJR put forth a guide “to some of the better reports we’ve found,” adding that “. . . Of all the attempts at gathering information about the killing in one place, Mother Jones has done it particularly well, with an epically long, oft-updated explainer page.” CJR also singled out reporting by Frances Robles of the Miami Herald and suggested:
“The time is ripe for a reporter to deliver a current, comprehensive account of the investigation that knits these strands together; makes clear what’s known, what’s alleged, and what’s disputed about [investigators'] actions; spells out what an ideal investigation would have looked like, and even advances the ball by answering some outstanding questions. For example: are there any police photos of Zimmerman that might show his injuries — or lack of injuries — more clearly than the grainy surveillance video we’ve all been staring at?”
Media Matters for America, responding to a Wall Street Journal piece by black conservative Shelby Steele, identified an additional issue. Have the media explained what exactly people are upset about?
Steele’s piece was headlined, “The Exploitation of Trayvon Martin: The absurdity of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton is that they want to make a movement out of an anomaly. Black teenagers today are afraid of other black teenagers, not whites.”
Steele, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who famously authored “A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win” during the 2008 campaign, wrote, “The civil rights community and the liberal media live by the poetic truth that America is still a reflexively racist society, and that this remains the great barrier to black equality. But this ‘truth’ has a lot of lie in it.”
Is that the “truth” the media have reported? Eric Boehlert responded for Media Matters, “It’s telling what Steele did not consider to be a tragedy in the Martin case — the fact that the man who admitted shooting the unarmed teen, George Zimmerman, hasn’t been arrested or charged with a crime. Indeed, the lack of an arrest is the central reason why the Martin story erupted into national headlines in recent weeks. And yet Steele, busy bashing Martin’s advocates as well as the press, raced right past that salient fact.
“Steele is not alone. Within the conservative media, it’s now become commonplace to pontificate about the Martin story (while often condemning civil rights activists as ‘race hustlers’) without ever mentioning why the story became such a blockbuster; without ever mentioning that the man who shot Martin has not been charged.”