Saturday, March 24, 2012

Media lynch mob pursues "justice" in Trayvon Martin case

Is George Zimmerman an innocent man?

Even though he hasn’t even been charged with a crime, let alone convicted, the prospect that Zimmerman acted in self defense seems inconceivable, thanks in no small part to the tone, tenor, and volume of the media’s coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Of course, Zimmerman may be guilty, and may have acted with racial malice. But should the media determine this?

As a peace journalism instructor, one of the things I teach my students is to consciously avoid framing stories in such a way as they pour gasoline on the fire, and to be especially cognizant of inflammatory language that can exacerbate an already tense situation. In this instance, the media have not followed these guidelines.

Take CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. Ordinarily, I find Cooper’s program to be among the best on television. Their coverage of Syria, for example, is putting increasing pressure on the international community to remove the despot Bashar Assad. However, I have found AC360’s coverage of Trayvon Martin’s shooting to be uncharacteristically sensational, leading a stampede to lynch Zimmerman before he’s even charged. In the guise of balance, Zimmerman’s attorney has appeared on AC360, but his lone voice is easily ignored among a cacophony of “get Zimmerman” shouts, repeated ad naseum.

I am not questioning the accuracy of CNN’s reporting, only the amount (41 reports, and counting, according to The Atlantic) and tone. How often do the same allegations need to be repeated? How often do we have to hear from grieving parents or angry protesters? How many times do we need to hear a fuzzy recording of Zimmerman allegedly uttering the f-word followed by a racial slur?

The repetitive and negative coverage have created an atmosphere where officials may be forced to indict him, even if the evidence doesn’t call for an indictment. If indicted, Zimmerman stands almost no chance of finding an unbiased jury anywhere in this country.

Of course, CNN and other media outlets can’t resist the “racial tensions” element to the story, an element both juicy and inflammatory. Dori Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, said, “When I hear ‘there are racial tensions,’ a.) I don’t know what that means, b.) I don’t know why there are tensions…Tensions is a nebulous word.”

Maynard added, “It tells me that people who don’t share the same ethnic or racial background are at odds with each other, but really? All of them are… There’s too much room for fill in the blank. I think as audience members, all of us are going to fill in the blank differently.” (Daily Kos)

These kinds of convenient, broad accusations of racial bias may boost ratings, but they do little to create an atmosphere where Zimmerman can properly utilize his constitutional protections.

Worse, one is left to ponder the possible consequences if authorities decide not to charge Zimmerman, or if he is charged and later found innocent. If this happens, will the media induced hysteria inevitably lead to a violent reaction?
Sadly, it’s hard to imagine another outcome.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn

Footnote: For another interesting take on this, see a piece in The Atlantic discussing the fact that Fox News has virtually ignored the Trayvon Martin case, running only one story. Is Fox racist?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this Steve. I actually engaged in a very similar discussion / debate with folks at church on Sunday and at a social work conference yesterday at Oklahoma University.

    The pursuit of justice demands some measure of balance. Even for folks who may have committed some wrong. Less vigilance than that, perpetuates the problem.

    Watching some of the news broadcasts and cable celebrities, I've the clear impression that this tragedy is being exploited for political advantage, largely it would seem, by people with whom I share a "political" affiliation. Damn, I hate it when that happens.

    I too have my suspicions and judgements, but I am hardly an impartial or sequestered jurist.
    I doubt that Anderson Cooper would be impressed by the "enhanced audio" detailing my opinion of CNNs coverage.