Thursday, October 1, 2015

If You Ain't, First You're Last

Kristian McPeek

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A big problem is that everyone wants to be the first to report the message, dominating the story everyone is talking about and influencing the direction of the story by continuing to reveal information no one else has. But as a journalist, remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. It doesn’t matter if it is a white guy reporting a story on an African American. What does matter is if a journalist writes an article acting like he knows what it is like to be that African American without getting any true resources.

As interest in the story begins to explode, news outlets cross a number of lines in trying to find new information, from CNN using audio analysis of a 911 call to mistakenly conclude that Zimmerman used a racial slur, to ABC examining a blurry video of Zimmerman’s arrival at police headquarters in Sanford the night of the shooting, to mistakenly theorize he might not have been injured in a fight with Martin as he claimed. Absence of direct evidence and the struggle for answers, often pushed media into a fight over the images of both the victim and killer.

Audiences concerned about the racial implications of the Martin story were seeking as much information as possible to understand what happened. But when reporting morphed from uncovering new facts to speculating on unverified claims, journalists wound up muddying the waters for news consumers and harming their own credibility in the process

The most maddening part of the Trayvon Martin shooting is a question which may never be fully answered: Was this killing motivated at all by race? Early reports stated that a white male might have gunned down a black teen, but hadn’t received any prosecution.  At this point journalists went all in trying to get more information and getting the law enforcement agencies to pay attention to their concerns.

 If Zimmerman could be shown to have racial bias in his past, perhaps he acted on that bias when he saw a 17-year-old black kid in a hoodie that he didn’t recognize in his housing development. If Martin could be shown as a “thug” – which increasingly seems a nice way of saying “violent, criminally inclined person of color” – then perhaps he was the one who began the confrontation which ended in his death.

This leads to one of biggest problems in covering race for journalists: the temptation to try and “prove” the person at the center of a controversial story is racist. One ethic code of journalism is speaking up for those who lack power in society, opposing unfair treatment in government systems and holding big institutions accountable. All too often when talking about race, journalists want try and get in there and give a voice to the so called victim, without even hearing the full story, or hearing what the other party has to say.

You might wonder, does the race matter of the journalist reporting the issue matter? What matters is not rushing and being the first to put the story out there, because it could end up destroying your credibility; what really matters is getting the facts straight and putting the truth, and as much of the whole story as you can out. In our diverse world today, journalists need to be careful when reporting stories concerning different ethnic groups.

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