Mainstream Media Struggles with Reporting on Race Crimes

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Author: 
Joshunda Sanders
April 18, 2012

Illustration: Roberto Delgado

Courts may ultimately decide whether the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the Tulsa shooting spree that left three black men dead on Good Friday were racially motivated crimes. What’s clear, however, is that the mainstream media struggled with how to handle the race element of each case.

The fatal shooting of Martin on Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman was initially a minor story in mainstream media. Not until massive coverage in alternative media — ethnic media, websites, radio talk shows — was the story catapulted to the front pages of national and international newspapers and magazines.

Eventually, the case spurred a national discussion about racial profiling, gun laws and self-defense.

Zimmerman’s use of the word “suspicious” to describe Martin while following the unarmed black youth through a gated neighborhood in Sanford, Fla., about 30 miles north of Orlando, underscored that popular culture and mainstream media often portray black men as criminals or reprobates. Thus, the mainstream media were late in linking racial profiling to the tragic outcome, even as alternative media made that its predominant theme. Major media missed the story behind the story.

Six weeks later, when two Tulsa men were arrested and accused of slaying three black men and wounding two others, mainstream media again trailed alternative media, hesitating to label the random shootings a hate crime. Charges against the suspects state that each victim was shot because of “race, color, ancestry or national origin.”

The suspects are Jake England, 19, who has been described as Native American and white, and had posted racial slurs on his Facebook page to vent against a black man now imprisoned in connection with the shooting death of England’s father in an altercation two years ago. Court records list England and Alvin Watts, 33, his roommate and accomplice, as white.

Reporting of the Tulsa incidents could have been more comprehensive with interviews of minority scholars or social justice leaders who had quickly labeled them hate crimes. Again, alternative media featured such reporting while the mainstream was slow to react.

In a commentary on the Poynter Institute website three days after the shootings, Andrew Beaujon wrote: “Maybe it’s the Trayvon Martin case, or maybe it’s just the system working as it should, but news organizations are moving cautiously on the story of this weekend’s shootings in Tulsa, Okla., which may — may — have been racially motivated.”

England and Watts are charged with three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of shooting with an intent to kill, all felonies, plus five misdemeanor counts of malicious intimidation or harassment. They are jailed with no possibility of release on bond.

According to state statute, malicious harassment occurs when a person acts “maliciously and with the specific intent to intimidate or harass another person because of that person’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin or disability,” the Tulsa World reported.

Tom Rosenstiel, founder and director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, says the Martin story “has gotten a lot of coverage at a time when race and racial divisions generally are not getting significant or a substantial amount of attention in the media. We measure what subjects get covered and don’t get covered on a regular basis.

“For five years, since we began tracking, race hasn’t ranked very high. There are occasional stories that have emerged as an event but not as a thesis that will bring race to the fore. The Martin case is the first in a while.”

Given the historical context of deadly race rioting in Tulsa in 1921, the media missed an opportunity to explore continuing interracial tension not just between blacks and whites but also between blacks and Native Americans in Oklahoma or between blacks and Latinos in Sanford, where Zimmerman and his family insisted that he was both white and Hispanic.

According to several media reports, England’s attorney, Clark Brewster, said England is a Cherokee. At least one story included an interview with one of England’s relatives saying he could not have been racist because he is a Native American.

On Colorlines.com, which describes itself as “a daily news site where race matters,” an article debated the merits of exploring Zimmerman’s racial identity as white and Hispanic.

In the past, Rosenstiel says, newspapers used extra news space on Sundays to provide multiple dimensions of stories such as the shootings in Tulsa and Sanford. But that space no longer exists. “The media culture moves so quickly now,” he says. “If you’re going to do it, you can’t wait until Sunday. There isn’t space, there isn’t time and there is the perception that there isn’t enough patience on the part of the audience.”

The media may well believe that that readers and viewers have no patience for lengthy discussions of race. In The New Yorker’s April 23 issue, Jill Lepore’s eight-page story about the role of guns in the Martin case was well reported and barely mentioned race. Hers was the most popular article on the magazine’s website.

What was clear in the Martin case in particular, Rosenstiel adds, was that race hadn’t been such a significant part of a crime story in many years, whether or not mainstream media addressed it.

Bob Butler, vice president of broadcast for the National Association of Black Journalists, reflected on the public’s response to articles on the Martin case and what that says about the mindset of readers.

“I don’t know that we need to harp on the race factor that much,” Butler says. “A young man was killed, and we need to focus on that. What disturbs me most are the blog posts or the comments on the newspaper stories. These are absolutely racist comments. They say the only reason he [Martin] was in the neighborhood is because he was up to no good. The fact that there are so many of these comments is more disturbing than anything else.”

Part of the reasoning and proliferation of racist commentary online may be the continual criminalization of black men and boys in mainstream media coverage, says Shawn Dove, campaign manager at the Campaign for Black Male Achievement for the Open Society Foundations.

“There is nothing wrong with black men in America,” he says. “They are living in a society that has some serious defaults and inequities that have driven black men to the bottom of every success indicator and at the top of every negative indicator.”

Dove says that the media have historically criminalized black men and boys, and that only alternative media offer more than episodic narratives about them that are humanizing and complete. The encouraging part of stories about Martin, he says, was that attention to his case allowed a conversation about black manhood to “permeate platforms like ‘Meet the Press’ and ‘Face the Nation,’ platforms where that discussion has rarely happened.”

The main takeaway from Martin’s case is that a host of positive stories about black men and boys in America exist and should be told. While black men and boys face many challenges, many black men are productive members of society.

Martin’s case also underscores what Dove sees as a pivotal moment for race relations in America.

“There’ve been so many parallels drawn between this and Emmett Till,” he says. “I remember the activism of his mother who insisted there be an open casket so the country could see what happened to her son. That emotional branding was part of the civil rights movement.

“I am hoping that we see something similar around the nameless and faceless Trayvon Martins across America who don’t get their stories told and there is no tsunami of coverage. I would hope that it’s not just for this moment but that there is a movement to remove the barriers and challenges that black boys face in America.”

Joshunda Sanders is a writer and journalism lecturer at the University of Texas. She is based in Austin.

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