Media Effects: Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and the Justice of Journalism

Active media watchers are difficult to please. They are an audience for whom the story itself rarely suffices. They look for the story behind the story. They’re interested in media effects. Such considerations separate them from average readers/viewers/consumers of media. Is this an elitist position to claim? Yes, perhaps. But it also defines the gatekeeping role of an editor, the moral deliberation of a whistle blower, and the ideal mindset of an informed citizen. To gather all facts — not merely those convenient to a predisposed viewpoint — is one major step towards an ethical engagement with media and its impact on the public whose interest it serves.

Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011) is an understatedly insightful exploration of this continuum of media reception, with a specific outlet at its center. Commendably non-partisan, Page One mostly avoids the trap of attaching the paper to any single political outlook and instead focuses on how the New York Times struggles to keep its status as an important channel of information that connects the individual reader to the events of the world. The forces of antagonism in the film are the threats of thieving news aggregators, short attention spans, unserious journalism, and above all the Wild West of the Internet, which despite its virtues enables all of the above to flourish. The film asks, how will this longstanding institution of journalism maintain its cultural value in a culture that no longer values its mission?

While the film does address the paper’s recent scandals (somewhat problematically equating Judith Miller’s momentary folly with Jayson Blair’s pattern of fabrication), there’s refreshingly little sensationalism in the series of events it observes and presents. The characters populating its newsroom represent a range of perspectives on newsgathering. Some are glimpsed in transition, fighting tears as they accept being laid off. By contrast, others are asserting their indispensability, none more so than young media reporter Brian Stelter and hardboiled media columnist David Carr. These two characters are most emblematic of the pivotal moment in which the paper finds itself, as they use the venerable outlet of the New York Times to report and to narrativize events happening at the forefront of new media.

So Stelter and Carr don’t merely stand at the intersection of old and new. They are that intersection. Media desk editor Bruce Headlam and executive editor Bill Keller are in the position of watching these watchmen, and the interaction between the four men provides goalposts for honest journalism and illustrates the importance of the editorial process. A couple episodes from Page One seem prescient in parsing the role of justice among the many functions of journalism — a framework presently at fever pitch regarding the sad case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Though before investigating the specifics of that story, it’s helpful to review the good model established by the characters of Page One.

One of the biggest stories to come across the desk while cameras were rolling was the controversial release of a video by whistleblower site WikiLeaks. Stelter and Noam Cohen covered the release of the video footage, which chronicled a 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike that resulted in 12 deaths, including two Reuters employees. Stelter and Cohen’s article, “Iraq Video Brings Notice to a Web Site”, effectively brought WikiLeaks boss Julian Assange’s agenda into focus and allowed the reader to understand the impact of the story through that lens:

“WikiLeaks did not merely post the 38-minute video, it used the label “Collateral Murder” and said it depicted “indiscriminate” and “unprovoked” killing… The Website also posted a 17-minute edited version, which proved to be much more widely viewed on YouTube than the full version. Critics contend that the shorter video was misleading because it did not make clear that the attacks took place amid clashes in the neighborhood and that one of the men was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.”

Page One reveals the process that produced such a fine-tuned article. Stelter doesn’t merely speculate. He doesn’t advocate. He investigates. Talking directly with Julian Assange on speakerphone, Stelter asks if he perceives himself as a journalist. Assange answers, “The journalism is just a tool. We use a tool to get to the goal.” When pressed by Stelter to define the goal, Assange says, “Broadly, our goal is justice.”

In a later interview promoting the film, Stelter would say of Page One, “The film fundamentally is about editing. You see reporters and editors figuring out what’s news and what’s not news… WikiLeaks does sometimes redact material and decide what not to post, but fundamentally they’re not bringing to bear those judgment calls that journalists are.” In other words, Assange fulfills a self-determined “justice” imperative but often fails to provide his audience with the necessary context for sorting through his agenda-driven information dumps.

Former editor Keller has since written a detailed account of the Times’ relationship with Assange, and Page One reveals that from the very beginning, his approach to the WikiLeaks story was one of caution and transparency. In a scene that takes viewers inside the “page one” meeting, we see Keller instructing his writers to ensure that readers understand there are two versions of the leaked video. Deputy Foreign Editor Ian Fisher characterizes the shorter video as having been “edited in a way that did not show the full story.”

Here, Keller and Fisher embody the best practices of the editorial process. They respect that Assange has chosen their publication as an outlet for his goal of carrying out justice, but they do not allow their subject’s advocacy to cloud the facts for their readers, who rightfully hold an expectation of impartial reportage. These media issues — justice, impartiality, and the editorial process — have all practically become the headlines in recent months because of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin story.

To begin: Martin is dead. There’s no doubt whatever about that. Nearly everything else about the case has been up for debate, and the narrative and visual dimensions of the debate have played out in the media with a level of passion rarely seen in the American press. The Martin affair — in which the unarmed 17-year-old died after being shot by neighborhood watchman volunteer Zimmerman — is far from being resolved in any legal sense. But as a news story, the spectacle of the coverage has created a flashpoint for ethics in journalism.

One of the complicating factors in the case was the length of time that passed between the incident (on 26 February 2012) and the filing of charges against Zimmerman (on April 11). This window of time allowed tensions to rise and a variety of rough impressions to persist. Although some media outlets were responsible in their treatment of the facts of the case, the popular narrative that grew up around the case was often shortsighted and ill researched. Compared to the comprehensive gathering of facts on display in Page One and (one hopes) practiced every day by newsrooms operating under press freedom, many outlets chose to stick to an impossibly undeveloped binary context for this particular story: that of white versus black.

It goes without saying that any coverage of this incident should remain open to the possibility of race as a motivating factor for the actions of Zimmerman and/or Martin. However, to frame the story solely in those terms is to risk another media misadventure in the tradition of media “events” like the Rodney King beating/trial/aftermath and the trials of O.J. Simpson and the Duke Lacrosse players. In such situations, the temptation to reduce the story to such divisive terms in order to lure the eyes of readers/viewers has tragic and wide-scale ramifications for both race relations and the legal process.

Additionally, while angry exhortations of both private individuals and public figures are understandable responses to the preventable ending of a young life, the media’s job is not to incite those already agitated voices. “Justice for Trayvon”, a popular phrase, has taken on several meanings, some positive and life affirming, others depressing and deadly.

Reporting the News and Making the News

In reviewing media reactions to the story, it’s not difficult to find some major missteps. One of the earliest and most consequential failures was in the representation of each man by a single photograph apiece. The widely distributed image of Martin was an older picture – a childhood photograph featuring his small stature and young, smiling face. Zimmerman’s photo was also old. It was a 2005-booking photo provided by the Orange County Jail, with the bulky, solemn Zimmerman wearing what appears to be the orange jumpsuit many associate with prison.

Basically from the beginning of the national coverage, the selected and promoted images of both men were unrepresentative of their current circumstances. In a story about the photo debate that ensued, Dylan Stableford wrote, “Like it or not, the images of the victim and the shooter have become as important in the court of public opinion as the facts.”

The simplification of the narrative (innocent, angelic child killed by bloodthirsty hulk in prison jumpsuit) was only the beginning of a series of stumbles that took the news consuming public further away from the truth of each man’s character. One development was an “overcorrection” of sorts, with some websites such as Business Insider and Twitchy publishing pictures of a grown-up, bird-flipping picture of Martin. However, to the embarrassment of both websites, the young man in that photo was not the Trayvon Martin shot by Zimmerman. Similar photographs of the correctly identified Martin were found via his Twitter account, but that didn’t justify the prior misidentification.

This rush to provide photographic evidence of character (as if doing so were possible via isolated images) yielded nothing but more division and speculation along racial lines. Eventually, a variety of pictures emerged, many of which would have been available to the press at any point in the case had they been interested in comprehensive reporting. Problematically, the use of race to describe the men was a major component in the selectivity of images. Zimmerman was widely reported to be white and Martin was identified as black. The persistent framing of the incident as a white-on-black crime again ignored the facts of the case: Zimmerman self-identifies as Hispanic, as his mother is originally from Peru. In recent weeks, the evolution of Zimmerman’s race has gone from white, to white-Hispanic, to Hispanic, even reaching current reports that his great-grandfather was black.

Yet despite many available facts that contradicted (or at least complicated) framing the incident as absolutely racially motivated, some networks decided to pursue such an angle with gusto. The figure at the front of MSNBC’s coverage of the Martin/Zimmerman story was Reverend Al Sharpton, a man with a long history of speaking out publicly on issues of race and justice. However, this time, he was both anchor and subject – officially hosting PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton as part of the regular MSNBC lineup and covering the case from the inside, as a public advocate for the Martin family. Howard Kurtz, writing for The Daily Beast, asked, “In what other context would a news organization allow someone to become such an integral part of the story and then represent the organization? Shouldn’t Sharpton have to choose between his dual roles?

Sharpton’s status as a bona fide journalist is disputable, but if Sharpton or MSNBC at least took any cues from the Society of Professional Journalists’ suggested Code of Ethics, then they would be more inclined to “act independently” and to “avoid conflicts of interests” and “associations and activities that may compromise integrity.” Furthermore, Sharpton did relatively little to separate his threats of escalated civil disobedience from other concurrent declarations made by activists in response to the case, such as the New Black Panther Party’s offering a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman, “wanted dead or alive.”

The most egregious and easily avoidable error in the coverage of the case was less ambiguous than photo selection, race identification, or the avoidance of conflicts of interest. In a series of events now known in some quarters as “Editgate”, the original audio of Zimmerman’s 911 call to report Martin wandering around the neighborhood was edited by NBC News in a way that drastically misrepresented the exchange between Zimmerman and the dispatcher. In the original recording of the call, the dispatcher asks of Martin, “Is he white, black, or Hispanic?” Zimmerman straightforwardly answers, “He looks black.” The exchange is very clearly a routine matter of identification.

However, NBC repeatedly aired an edited version of the recording that removed the dispatcher’s question. So in the manipulated version, Zimmerman appears to say, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” By removing the dispatcher’s question, NBC News created the impression that Zimmerman was profiling Martin and focusing on his race as a matter of suspicion. Although the president of NBC’s news division eventually addressed the issue, calling the deceptive edit a “mistake” and disciplining the involved employees, the damage had already been done in the court of public opinion. As Chris Francescani wrote in a Reuters story about the situation, “blogs, along with media critics and rival networks, have charged that the edited call has inflamed racial tensions in an already volatile situation.”

Exposure of the deceptive editing didn’t end the practice or put the issue to rest, at least not at NBC. As reported in the Huffington Post, reporter Lilia Luciano combined “sections from two different portions of the tape to give the misleading impression that Zimmerman said the phrase, ‘This guy looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something. He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male.’”

Having cleared, released, and repeated multiple questionable edits across television and Internet pieces about the case, NBC might have temporarily gained viewers drawn to the network’s sensationalization of the story. However, in the process, the network stirred racial tensions and opened itself up to scrutiny and convincing accusations of bias and distortion. Sadly, Stelter’s comments about WikiLeaks’ reputation for redacting material without the sound judgment of journalists could also easily apply to this situation. To think multiple bad edits made it past a number of figures within NBC’s editorial process, stretches credibility to the breaking point. The more likely explanation is that the network’s goal of justice precluded honest reportage of the facts.

It’s impossible to determine the exact role these media misadventures might have played in the decision of special prosecutor Angela Corey to charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder. Many are weighing in with different opinions on the subject of whether Zimmerman will get a fair trial. Although the media frenzy has tapered off a little, the case remains in the news and will no doubt dominate headlines if the trial provides new fodder for the established narrative. However, no new development will change the fact that one man is dead, another’s life is forever altered, and a range of relevant social issues/components of the story went underreported for the sake of fostering negative race relations.

In late May, attendees at a University of Massachusetts Dartmouth commencement ceremony reacted with shock when Rep. Barney Frank commented on the hooded academic robe given to civil rights leader and honorary degree recipient Hubie Jones. Jones, whose lifelong commitment to social justice has focused in part on helping young people gain access to better educational opportunities, has transformed the lives of students who might otherwise have been excluded — students not unlike Trayvon Martin.

Bizarrely, Frank used the occasion of Jones being honored to make a joke about academic apparel and black men. Referencing the hooded sweatshirt Martin died in, Frank said, “You now have a hoodie you can wear and no one will shoot at you.” Trivializing Jones’ life and Martin’s death in the same breath, Frank’s bad joke might have received more coverage, had the major media outlets treated the Zimmerman/Martin case with discernment and respect in the first place. Yet this is again a tragic story around which so many in the media dropped the ball, thus Frank’s comment will likely float away as just one more insult added to the injury of the missed opportunity to discuss race and violence with intelligence and honesty.

Meanwhile, justice seems more elusive and harder to define with each passing report. Call it the Media Effect.

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