By Charlie Mitchell
Before George Zimmerman was charged last week with second-degree homicide in the death of Trayvon Martin, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press had already asked Americans what they thought about the media’s coverage of the shooting in Florida.
Guess what? More than a third of respondents said the coverage was over the top. About the same number said they were following the story’s developments “most closely” among current topics. A much smaller group wanted the press to be more aggressive. Rather than ponder that, however, let’s look at the role of the media in such cases, those that become “sensational.”
Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, near Orlando, on Feb. 26. His death was initially a local story. It was duly reported in central Florida papers and on central Florida TV news.
Then, in early March, using Florida’s open records law, transcripts and copies of taped 911 calls were obtained by the media and placed on the Internet. The contents of the tapes showed things weren’t so clear-cut that night. People responded by wanting to know more. So, initially, the role of the media was to draw national attention to the case. Without a free, active, robust press in America, the teen’s death would have remained a local matter. Some, of course, will have no problem with that. Others, as the poll indicated, are glad the alarm was sounded.
Either way, the media initiated what would quickly become wall-to-wall reporting of both the obvious – an unarmed African-American walking through a neighborhood was killed by a white (who turned out to be Hispanic) – and the not so obvious. There was serious journalism based on investigations of Zimmerman’s background and, later, Trayvon’s. There was an overload of opinion-sharing, outrage and unfounded speculation. Sanford’s chief stepped aside and the governor sent in a special investigator. The first order of business for State’s Attorney Angela B. Corey was to seek and win suspension of access to all documents related to the situation and the people involved. Without facts, improvisation increased.
In the ensuing days, people quickly turned on the media, placing blame and saying the story was being hyped. “Why,” it was asked, “do we have so much more attention paid to the killing of a black by a white (who turned out to be Hispanic) than when blacks kill other blacks or black people kill whites?”
The answer to that one – and there is one – is not “political correctness,” as some dismiss it to be. The answer is that the media, for the most part, reflects the collective conscience of the nation.
Black on black crime is epidemic and tragic. Black on white crime happens at least as much as white on black. The reason the media pays more attention to bad things happening to black people at the hands of white people (even those who turn out to be Hispanic) is that as a people we are much more sensitive to cases with this alignment.
As hard as it might want to, this nation has never come to grips with the distant legacy of slavery and the more recent legacy of Jim Crow.
There may be African-Americans in lots of high-visibility positions of success and power – including the presidency – but a day of reconciliation has not come. Until it does, there will be more interest and more media attention on incidents such as the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.
Public interest drives coverage. The media can shine a spotlight, but it will dim if people do not respond.
Those weary of the media “throwing race in their face” are not bad people. They don’t see why we can’t forget and move on. They fail to see that while the media can be a driving force, actual change only comes if people don’t like what they see.
A specific result of the intense media coverage is that members of the Florida Legislature are taking a serious second look at provisions in their 2003 “Stand Your Ground” law. Members of the Mississippi Legislature would be well advised to look at the “Castle Doctrine” they modeled after the Florida changes and passed in 2006.
It’s clear that people have strong opinions about the circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s death. That’s where the attention should be … on the law, on the events of that night. To focus on the press coverage is to miss the point.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.