In Defense of the Media's Coverage of Trayvon Martin

The headline on New York Times media critic David Carr's column on media coverage of Trayvon Martin is only five words, "A Shooting, and Instant Polarization," but it really contains two arguments, neither of which bear up to facts.

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The headline on New York Times media critic David Carr's column on media coverage of Trayvon Martin is only five words, "A Shooting, and Instant Polarization," but it really contains two arguments, neither of which bear up to facts. The first is "Instant" (we'll get to the "Polarization" in a moment). Here we find a familiar lament about the Web: it works too fast. The media, now working on Internet-speed, reaches conclusions before there is complete information. "That the public is rendering its verdict immediately and firmly may be routine," Carr writes, "but it’s been staggering to see it simmer and boil over in our hyperdivided media environment where nonstop coverage on the Web and cable television creates a rush to judgment every day." Whatever you think about the coverage over the Martin shooting, that hasn't been the case. Martin died 36 days ago. It took weeks for the national media to notice. And in the intervening days, the media actually did the sort of things that most media critics often call for: They did their jobs as newsgatherers, establishing facts and building a public record. There is still, of course, plenty about the case that is unknown, but the outrage was a reaction to reported facts -- particularly those gathered by local Florida media like the Orlando Sentinel.

Contrary to Carr's thesis, whatever one thinks about the state of the coverage, the Martin case is if anything an aberration from our ADD-driven media environment. Carr's colleague Brian Stelter offered a prebuttal of sorts last Monday, in his piece, "In Slain Teenager's Case, a Long Route to National Attention," in which he tackled the question of why "it took several weeks before the rest of the country found out" that so many people were upset by the Martin shooting.

Need proof? Here's a timeline of the media coverage of the story:

February 26: Martin is shot. Over the next 10 days, local reporters have the space to do their jobs of gathering facts out of the glare of national punditry and Web wiseacres.
March 8: CBS News airs the first national story, Stelter says, and The Huffington Post and also have stories that day. National interest grows over the next week.
March 16: 911 recordings are released, which leads to wider coverage. "Having the audio — which the police had previously declined to release — was critical because it gave radio and TV reporters more material for their segments and because it aroused more suspicion about Mr. Zimmerman," Stelter wrote.
March 20: The Florida state attorney sends the case to a grand jury. The Justice Department says it will investigate the shooting.
March 23: President Obama says if he had a son, "he'd look like Trayvon." 
March 26: The Daily Caller scours Martin's social networks to find photos of him using slang and showing gold teeth, implying that he was a scary thug.
March 27: Looking at data covering March 22 to 25, the Pew Research Center finds the Martin story is the No. 1 news story people are most interested in -- and that interest actually outpaces news coverage.
March 28: So many reporters have flooded the Sanford, Florida that the city sends out a press release saying it "will not hesitate to make an arrest for stalking," if reporters keep pestering city employees "when they are in their roles as private citizens." George Zimmerman's father tells a local news station that Martin threatened to kill Zimmerman.
March 29: Police release video of George Zimmerman entering the police station, sending people searching for evidence that Zimmerman was injured in a fight with Martin.
March 30: The Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that the Martin story has become the first story all year to be covered more than the presidential race in its analysis of coverage from March 17 to 28.

Now, as for "Polarization," the Martin story "threatens to divide a country," Carr writes. "All over the Internet and on cable TV, posses are forming, positions are hardening and misinformation is flourishing. Instead of debating how we as a culture are going to proceed, an increasingly partisan system of news and social media has factionalized and curdled," he adds. Carr is right about the ugly reactions sparked by the Martin case -- the Daily Caller seems to be implying that some slangy tweets mean the kid deserved to die, for instance -- but look away from the Twitter console and get out of the back alleys of the Internet, and the country does not seem so divided by the case. A CNN poll found 73 percent of Americans want to see Zimmerman arrested last week. Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, published a story titled, "Al Sharpton Is Right" on March 23. 
The Internet may make it easier to find the opinions of jerks  -- people tweeting slurs against Martin, or threats of violence against Zimmerman -- but that doesn't mean there are more jerks because of the Web. Social media hasn't made people any meaner. Way back in the pre-tweet stone age, on December 22, 1984, Bernie Goetz shot to death four unarmed black teenagers on the New York City subway who demanded he give them $5 dollars. Was the public response cool and calm? No! By J January 7, 1985, The New York Times was reporting, "ANGRY CITIZENS IN MANY CITIES SUPPORTING GOETZ" about people across the country psyched by vigilantism. A couple weeks later, Time magazine reported the country sounded pretty polarized: "Joan Rivers sent a LOVE AND KISSES telegram offering to help out with the bail money. "Thug Buster" T-shirts began to appear on the streets of New York City, and an aspiring rock group wrote a song in his honor ('I'm not going to give you my pay/ Try and take it away/ Come on, make my day/ They call him the vigilante')." People made "Goetz for President" pins. (You can still buy them on eBay!) We have made progress, even if the Klan is on Twitter.
The problem with these calls, like Carr's, to the media's better angels, is that they too often rely on false nostalgia. ("What happened to the village common," Carr laments, "a place where we all meet with different opinions but the same set of facts?") And the disappointment at not living in that better time when discourse was less coarse lacks perspective. It also prevents one from doing the thing that can actually help in a situation like this: Offering insightful commentary and reporting that scatters the trolls to the parts of the Web where they can be ignored.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.