Christopher Lane Killing Becomes Race Issue For Conservative Pundits

Conservative Pundits Manufacture Racial Firestorm Over Killing

Some conservative pundits are enraged this week by what they view as a racial double-standard in media coverage of a high-profile killing in Oklahoma.

Australian baseball player Christopher Lane was gunned down last week while out on a jog in Duncan, Okla., where he had been visiting his girlfriend. Three local teenagers have been arrested. James Edwards, 15, and Chancey Luna, 16, were charged with first-degree murder. Michael Jones, 17, was accused of being an accessory to first-degree murder.

According to police, Jones made a detailed confession explaining the motive. "We were bored and didn't have anything to do, so we decided to kill somebody," the teen reportedly said.

Police have not ascribed any racial motive to the killing. Two of the alleged perpetrators, Edwards and Luna, are black. Jones is white.

That hasn't stopped a slew of conservative commentators from insisting that race was an important factor in the shooting. The same voices insist the media is guilty of a massive double-standard -- one that traces back to coverage of teen Trayvon Martin's shooting death in Florida at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer.

Rush Limbaugh used his radio show Wednesday to insist that Lane's killing was "Trayvon Martin in reverse." Limbaugh insisted that the "mainstream media's" failure to cover the racial dimensions of the crime was clear evidence of complicity in "the destruction of American culture and society." He said one of the accused shooters "worships rappers" and celebrates "thug culture."

A similar message was put forward by Fox News, with more embarrassing results. On Wednesday morning, "Fox & Friends" falsely reported that all three of the suspects were black, during a segment in which host Steve Doocy, like Limbaugh, brought up Trayvon Martin.

The Daily Caller made the same factual error, and compounded it by showing what it claimed to be photos of each of the suspects. The person identified by the website as Michael Jones, who is white, was a black man entirely uninvolved to the shooting.

The conservative website later issued a retraction that was something short of contrite, sarcastically noting that "this, of course, changes everything." (Emphasis the Daily Caller's.)

The Drudge Report, meanwhile, dedicated a portion of its left-hand column on Wednesday to the shooting -- in the process playing up race, and Trayvon Martin, in its own appraisal of the crime.

Present in each of these breathless rebukes is the same central idea -- that the media's alleged refusal to make race a central issue in the killing of Lane amounts to an abrupt shift in crime coverage less than a month after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, who was black.

Mediaite's Noah Rothman elaborated on this argument on Wednesday: "A media that arguably fostered the creation of a racial angle in the killing of Trayvon Martin … has contorted itself in tortured ways to avoid describing the suspects in Lane's murder."

The history of media coverage of Trayvon Martin's death is actually more complicated.

As the Poynter Institute's Eric Deggans pointed out in February, early reports on the Trayvon Martin shooting omitted the races of both Martin and Zimmerman. The Orlando Sentinel published its first article about the Feb. 26 shooting the very next day, according to Poynter, but described shooter and victim simply as "two men."

It wasn't until nearly two weeks later that Martin was identified as African American by CBS News, Reuters and The Huffington Post. By that point, Martin's family was already raising questions about the role of race in the shooting.

Which brings up an important point: There is no hard rule dictating how journalists report matters of race. However, the idea of "relevancy" generally applies.

A 2012 update to The Associated Press Stylebook, for example, directs journalists to avoid mentioning the race of crime suspects unless it is directly relevant to the story -- for example, if the crime was racially motivated.

"We have to use our news judgment on racial references," explained the AP's David Minthorn in a 2012 Poynter interview. "But if we have reason to believe that it’s from a credible, reasonable source and appropriate for the story, we would include it"

Similarly, The New York Times stylebook instructs that race should only be mentioned when "pertinent" to the topic at hand.

“We would mention race in a physical description only if it really is a detailed physical description that readers would learn something from,” Philip Corbett, a Times associate managing editor, told Poynter in 2011. “But if the description is a ‘white man in his 40s’ or ‘a black man in a hoodie,’ then you’re not really providing any useful information and it could be sort of boiler plate.”

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