Dori Maynard
At the Poynter Institute, which strives to teach people how to be better journalists, Mallary Jean Tenore has taken on coverage of the vigilante slaying of Trayvon Martin.

Tenore writes that one of the problems with the reporting seen so far comes from mentions of "racial tensions" without explaining precisely what is meant by this:

“I think the coded language masks some lack of in-depth understanding of the issues,” said Dori Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. “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,” she pointed out, is a nebulous word.

“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?” Maynard said by phone. “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.”

That last point bears repeating. Even when there is more specificity regarding "racial tensions," individuals of different racial or ethnic backgrounds can view what that means quite differently. Making the situation clearer requires more thorough reporting,  Tenore says, offering several examples, including:
Whether there have been racially motivated crimes in the community, and whether black suspects have been unfairly treated. The Miami Herald reported that the Sanford Police Department “was accused of giving favorable treatment to relatives of officers involved in violent encounters with blacks.” It seems there’s more reporting to do.
In fact, there have been some details reported in this regard, but mostly in the alternative press. In 2010, it took the Sanford police seven weeks to arrest the son of an officer who punched a homeless man enough to send him to the hospital. Had that not been captured on video, he might never have been arrested. In 2005, charges were not initially filed against two white security guards who shot to death a black teenager they claimed had tried to run them down after they focused their flashlights in his face in a parking lot. One of the guards was a volunteer Sanford cop. The other was the son of a former police officer.

The two were eventually charged, but the judge dismissed the case on grounds of self defense. Later, one of the two was arrested twice, first for acting like a security guard even though his license had expired, and a second time for impersonating a police officer.

(Continue reading below the fold)

Another relentless aspect of the reporting has been the emphasis on Martin's wearing of a hoodie when he was shot. The supposed suspiciousness of anyone wearing such attire was turned into a protest in New York City Wednesday. At Daily Kos, Mallyroyal posted a highly personal and bullseye expression of how the wearing of a hoodie enhances stereotypes. Writes Tenore:

News stories have published a close-up photo of Martin wearing a white hooded sweatshirt, the hood pulled up over his head. Monday evening, ABC News closed its story of him with that image. Fewer stories have pointed out that Zimmerman was also wearing a hoodie. [My emphasis—MB]

The fact that Martin was wearing a hoodie doesn’t reveal much about him.

“I think it’s more revealing that he had Skittles, if you’re going to talk about who he was,” Maynard said. “A hoodie tells me what the weather conditions were. Skittles tell me about a child.” The Skittles also set up a striking juxtaposition: Martin was “armed with a package of Skittles and an iced tea“; Zimmerman was armed with a gun.

Tenore continues:
In an NPR essay, the Center for Inspired Teaching‘s Cosby Hunt said the media coverage of Martin wearing a hooded sweatshirt reminds him of his own children and the conversations he and his wife will need to have with them. His 3-year-old son Ellington wears a Batman hoodie with ears as often as he can, and sometimes sleeps with it on. His older son Freeman also wears hooded sweatshirts.

“We did not plan to give them advice about hoodies, but now I see we’ll need to have that talk, too,” Hunt writes. “We will have [to] say, ‘You know how you used to wear your hooded Batman sweatshirt when you wanted to fight the bad guys as a kid? Well, now that you’re older, some people will be confused and think that you are the bad guys if they see your hoodie and your skin color. It’s silly and wrong that anyone would think that you are the bad guys, but we don’t want you to be hurt. We don’t want the real bad guys or even some guy playing superhero to hurt you.’ ”

Beginning in journalism classes in the 1970s, including those I taught to older adult university students in the 1980s, efforts have been made to improve the output of people likely to be reporting such matters. The best approach is to get more people of color into the newsroom in both reporting and editing jobs. As we've seen from the media's overemphasis on black men as criminals and other stereotyping of people of color, not only African Americans, journalism schools, if they continue to exist, need to ramp up their approach to improving coverage. Ultimately, however, the key element is not reporters or editors. Marching orders come from the top.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Thu Mar 22, 2012 at 11:02 AM PDT.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges, White Privilege Working Group, ClassWarfare Newsletter: WallStreet VS Working Class Global Occupy movement, and Daily Kos.

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