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

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman

Justice, impartiality, and the editorial process have all practically become the headlines in recent months because of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin story. Meanwhile, justice seems more elusive and harder to define with each passing report.

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.

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