Public Comment

Trayvon Martin and the Media Depiction of African American Males

By Dori J. Maynard
Friday March 30, 2012 - 02:41:00 PM

“He’s got his hand in his waistband, and he’s a black male.”

— George Zimmerman to a 911 operator shortly before he fatally shot Trayvon Martin

When people ask why I do the work I do, sometimes I tell the truth — because I don’t want my brothers shot.

Until last month, my hesitation stemmed from fear that this answer sounded overly dramatic for someone who runs a nonprofit focused on helping the nation’s news media diversify its coverage.

Then Trayvon Martin was slain because a neighborhood watch volunteer thought he looked suspicious while walking back from a store after buying Skittles and an iced tea. 

I don’t know George Zimmerman. I don’t know whether he is racist, and I have no idea what was in his heart and mind when he shot and killed the 17-year-old. 

I do know that if Zimmerman consumes news, it’s likely that he’s being fed a steady diet of distorted and scary images of black men. 

A content audit released last October by The Opportunity Agenda (TOA) in New York examined coverage of black men and boys found that often missing from that coverage is mention of legions of boys and men of color who rise every morning and go to school or serve in the military, who are businessmen, schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, stay-at-home dads, bloggers and more. 

That one-sided portrait of a multidimensional community has consequences for all of us. 

“These unbalanced and distorted media portrayals can lead to distorted perceptions and discriminatory treatment,” says Alan Jenkins, executive director and co-founder of TOA, which describes itself as “a communications, research, and policy organization dedicated to building the national will to expand opportunity for all.” 

According to a 2000 study, local news consumption and racial fear are directly linked. In “Prime Suspects: The Influence of Local Television News on the Viewing Public,” Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Shanto Iyengar, professor of communication and political science at Stanford University, measured viewers’ racial attitudes after watching local crime news in Los Angeles. 

“Our central finding is that the exposure to the racial element of the crime script increases support for punitive approaches to crime and heightens negative attitudes about African-Americans among white, but not black, viewers,” they wrote in the study. 

According to Dominique Apollon, research director at the Applied Research Center, a nonprofit that has done research on racial framing in the media, “As far as local coverage is concerned, more often than not, the media portrays black and brown men as violent menaces to society [and] as repeat offenders who are beyond rehabilitation. 

“Reporters primarily rely upon law enforcement for quotes, and police often stoke or reinforce the public’s existing stereotypes and fears about black men. The effect is a public that is primed to be paranoid. And combine that paranoia with pro-vigilante public policy and a callous disregard for black life, and you have the tragedy and travesty of this incident and its aftermath.” 

Given the state of the news industry, a concerted effort is required if we want to see balanced coverage of boys and men of color that gives the audience a more accurate and less fraught view of them. 

In recent years, as traditional news media have suffered painful contractions, determination to diversify newsrooms has waned, decreasing the number of journalists of color who could help fellow journalists see communities of color through a different lens. 

Things are not much better on the digital side where an all-too-common complaint is that white men dominate conversations and panels about the future of journalism. 

The case of Trayvon Martin is a stark reminder of why it matters who is in the conversation about coverage. 

The weekend of March 16, black media commentators including Touré, Goldie Taylor and Roland Martin took to Twitter to discuss the shooting, and Charles M. Blow wrote about it in his New York Times column. Meanwhile, a check of Twitter feeds by prominent non-African American media commentators shows that many were talking about Mike Daisey’s misrepresentations in his searing piece on Apple’s Chinese manufacturing partner. 

Both are important conversations that deserve coverage. One is about who we are as journalists. The other is about who we are as a society. 

Both must take place if the media are to meet their responsibility to help all citizens make sense of the world. 

One helped to inform the conversation about journalism ethics during a transformational time in this industry. The other brought the nation’s attention, from Cher to John Legend to everyday people, to focus on the shootings of African American men. 

As we go forward, I hope these same people will rally around the cause of accurate and fair coverage for black and brown boys and men so they, too, no longer risk being mistaken for a dangerous predator. 

Perhaps then this older sister and legions of sisters, parents, grandparents and friends can stop worrying. 

Also see: 

Dori J. Maynard is the President of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Prior to being named president in January 2001, she directed the History project which leads the way in preserving and protecting the contributions of those courageous journalists of color who broke into the mainstream media against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Dori also heads the Fault Lines project, a framework that helps journalists more accurately cover their communities. She is the co-author of "Letters to My Children," which is a compilation of nationally syndicated columns by her late father Bob Maynard, with introductory essays by Dori. As a reporter, she worked on both coasts -- The Bakersfield Californian, and The Patriot Ledger, in Quincy, Massachusetts -- as well as at the Detroit Free Press,. In 1993 she and her father became the first father-daughter duo ever to be appointed Nieman scholars at Harvard University. Bob Maynard won this prestigious fellowship in 1966. 

She currently serves on the board of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation. She received the prestigious "Fellow of Society" award from the Society of Professional Journalists at the national convention in Seattle, Wash. October 6, 2001 and was voted one of the "10 Most Influential African Americans in the Bay Area" in 2004. In 2008 she received the Asian American Journalists Association's Leadership in Diversity Award.  

Maynard graduated from Middlebury College, Vermont, with a BA in American History.