WMC News & Features

Trayvon Martin Case: Do We Communicate More, Listen Less?

Trayvon20 Martin

Multimedia journalist Mary C. Curtis, among the first to write and speak about Trayvon Martin in the national media, draws lessons from the weaknesses and strengths of traditional and new media in covering the case.

Why do we care about Trayvon Martin? By now, most everyone knows about the 17-year-old who was killed by a neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Florida. Why, when so many other cases—similar in character and situation—happen every day, did the world latch onto this particular young man as a symbol and a cause?

After all, the debate over Martin, George Zimmerman, what happened on that rainy night, and what it all means did not start soon after the February incident. It took weeks for the story to see the spotlight. It took determined parents, their persistent attorney, and social media. The word grew, spread by alternative web and media sites, by Twitter and Facebook—the modern-day equivalent of word-of-mouth, multiplied many times over.

Sites such as ColorOfChange.org, with its mission “to strengthen Black America’s political voice,” disseminated an online petition. Trymaine Lee of the Huffington Post got onto the story early. Don Lemon of CNN and the Rev. Al Sharpton, the activist and MSNBC host, contributed reporting and interviews. A column by Charles Blow drew New York Times readers to his personal and historical reflections. Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post listed the rules of safety and caution he learned from his mother, rules repeated in homes and over generations.

Now, as the story leads network and mainstream media reports, it should be noted that African American journalists and commentators advanced the story being repeated in homes throughout the country.

I knew why I cared about Trayvon Martin the moment I witnessed his mother’s grief. My own story in the Washington Post for She the People took a personal tone, as I related fears for my own son, a gentle and loving young man and accomplished scholar stopped in our own Charlotte, North Carolina, neighborhood by a police officer who saw none of those qualities.

In that column and a radio appearance that followed, I almost felt that I was serving as translator, using my experiences not only to retell the story of Trayvon Martin and his family but also to lead listeners into a world of their neighbors, a world that privilege had shielded them from for so long.

The way the case has progressed was a strong argument—and I made it on Warren Olney’s “To the Point”—that a fair and accurate media must be diverse, so everyone’s story can be told and all points of view considered. Just the thought of a black male as victim is startling to so many, accustomed to publicized citizens in jeopardy that fit a circumscribed mold of young, female, usually affluent, and white victim.

In newsrooms, management decisions made perhaps in haste might change if other voices in the room had a say, voices that represent millions of Americans often disregarded or ignored. After the conversation began, it started to broaden, to include, for instance, the implications of “Stand Your Ground” gun laws that ease claims of self-defense, the dangers of racial profiling, and what wearing a hooded jacket does and does not mean.

Yet as we hail the present-day media landscape that seemed to teach the mainstream media a thing or two and move the dialogue forward, we must also recognize the pitfalls inherent in the instant-access age. It didn’t take Americans long to fall back into old-fashioned tribalism, sorry to say.

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman went from individuals to caricatures, with details of past arrests and school suspensions being leaked out bit by bit and used to justify preconceived notions of their encounter.

Now that more information is available, we want all of it, unfiltered and without context. Social media used to express sympathy and support became tools to insult and spread misinformation—from conservative Michelle Malkin’s circulation of an image of a young man she deemed threatening who turned out not to be Martin at all to a Tweet by Spike Lee of an address that purported but turned out not to be Zimmerman’s. Lee has apologized, though the occupants had to abandon their home for now. When Martin’s mother sought to trademark slogans using her son’s name that appeared on shirts and signs, she was attacked for wanting to profit from his death, when she said it was only to stop others from doing so.

Once out, disavowed information is difficult to retract and impossible to erase. Already a Pew Research Center report shows interest in the case dividing along racial lines.

The proliferation of media outlets may bring us closer, yet keep us at a distance. What became in the beginning a way to break down stereotypes can also be used to reinforce them as we search for the information that fits our preconceived notions.

While we live in a world that won’t shut up, talk of sexism is called sexist while any talk of racism is deemed racist. All this goes on while sexist and racist slurs find their way into this “civilized” discussion. When we gain anonymity and a megaphone, some find a way to lose their cool and sense of fair play.

It would be ironic and tragic if the media that make events public caused us all to retreat further into our corners. New media tools are a step forward, and I wouldn’t call for a halt even if I could. But like any tool, they are no better or more thoughtful than the human beings who use them.

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