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Race and media in the United States: Trayvon Martin case has journalists questioning their role in the story

Beyond public outrage and accusations of racism, the shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida also has prompted debate about how the news media should cover such a racially sensitive story, and where journalists should draw the line in terms of exercising their rights as citizens versus curtailing their opinions as reporters.

In a case that has garnered national attention, on Feb. 26, Martin, a Black Florida high school student, was shot to death by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who has yet to be charged with a crime.

Alan Jenkins of the Kansas City Star noted that the news media have "had a hand in creating the mindset that leads to tragedies like this one," as media distortions of Blacks reinforce negative stereotypes, with the potential to "increase African-American men's likelihood of being shot without justification."

Perhaps not wanting to reinforce stereotypes, most news media have published an old photo of a smiling, young Martin, sparking debate about why recent photos of the teen -- who had a tattoo and gold teeth -- were not used, according to The Cutline. The newer photo was obtained from Martin's Twitter account, along with tweets from the month before his shooting, without the family's permission, raising questions about the ethics behind unauthorized access to social media accounts, explained The Examiner.

A cartoon published in the college newspaper The Daily Texan also sparked controversy and allegations of racism for using an offensive term to refer to African Americans, and for implying that the media had turned the shooting into a bigger deal than it really was, according to KUT News radio station and the New York Daily News. The newspaper's editorial board apologized, adding that all newspaper employees will have to attend a seminar on race and the media, reported the San Antonio Express-News.

Meanwhile, ESPN reversed its original decision banning journalists from posting pictures of themselves in hoodies -- Martin was wearing a hoodie when he was killed -- to show solidarity with the teen. The network decided “to allow this particular expression of human sympathy.” Writing for the Poynter Review Project Blog, however, Kelly McBride criticized the sports reporters who changed their social media photos to show themselves wearing hoodies, telling journalists "if you want to make a difference, explain the story, don’t become part of it."

As Poynter questioned, what is the difference between ESPN reporters being allowed to wear hoodies to show solidarity with Martin, and Gannett company reporters who were disciplined for signing a petition to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker? "Both instances raise the question: What rights should journalists be free to exercise?"


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