Armed. 28 years old. Vigilante. Acting in self-defense. White, Hispanic or Latino.
Even without a headline, it's easy to identify what story these terms hail from—they're the most popular and controversial details in the coverage of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.
Although some of them are imperative to understanding the story ("unarmed"; "armed"; "acting in self-denfense"), others are arguably excessive, namely the much-referenced and highly debated use of "wearing a hoodie."
But if anything, the coverage of Martin's death should at least be an opportunity for journalists to discuss and re-evaluate the way we cover crime and race.
Multiple reporters, like Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore, have already started investigating the coverage. In a recent article
, she proposed journalists should not yet refer to Martin’s death as a murder, due to the implication of guilt carried by the word. Instead, she suggested, journalists should try to use "killing" or "shooting" if they wish to maintain some objectivity. In another article
, Tenore explained why journalists should be careful of how they throw around the words "racial tensions," and explored the special challenge of reporting on the hoodie.
Other media outlets, like Time, The Telegraph, and the Huffington Post, touched on another important aspect of the reporting process: the role social media played in bringing the story to an international audience. That platforms like Twitter and Facebook circulated the story until the media had no choice to but to cover it is just another example of how powerful such tools have become, and how necessary it is to pay attention to them.
It's also an opportunity for journalists to really question what it is they’re writing.
In an article posted on his blog, the Daily Mail’s Tony Harnden managed to insert a rather unqualified statement high up in the story, stating that “For black parents, the fear of an incident like this is acute.” There was no accompanying quote or fact to support this statement, making it seem as though it's simply Harnden’s opinion.
“For black parents, the fear of an incident like this is acute.”
For black parents only
? Do white or Asian or Middle Eastern parents not worry about their children the same way black parents do? Or did he mean something else? The fear is acute? So this is something black parents worry intensely about? These are just some of the questions that a statement like Harnden's can raise. He's certainly not the only journalist to have inserted a personal opinion on race into his coverage, but this kind of overarching statement should give journalists pause before they include similar assertions in a news story.
Much of what to include or omit in the coverage of Trayvon Martin could easily be hotly debated. But at the very least, it's worth a civil discussion.
Lead image via Reuters