In Trayvon Martin Case, Media Need to Examine Their Own Role

Last spring, the Association of News Editors (ASNE) announced that the percentage of minority news employees at American newspapers and news websites had declined for the third consecutive year, even as the overall percentage of non-white Americans continued to rise rapidly.

It was not the stuff of national headlines. But perhaps, given the slow initial reaction of the American news media to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, it should have been.

In 2010, just 12.79 percent of editorial employees were minorities, ASNE reported, down about a half percent from the year before.

Noted ASNE President Milton Coleman:

"At a time when the U.S. Census shows that minorities are 36 percent of the U.S. population, newsrooms are going in the opposite direction. This is an accuracy and credibility issue for our newsrooms."

While the percentage of minority representation was better in television -- about 1 in 5, RTNDA's national survey of women and minorities shows the percentage of African-American news employees in television was lower in 2011 than in any of the prior six years, lower than in 2000 and lower than in 1995. In print, nearly a third of black journalists left or were laid off in the first decade of this century as newsrooms shrank their full-time workforces by a quarter.

As the American public watches, riveted at each new development in the Martin case -- the 911 tapes; a video showing the man who shot him, George Zimmerman, brought into Sanford, Fla., police headquarters; an interview with Martin's undertaker, who says he saw no signs of a struggle in preparing the boy's body for burial -- it is easy to forget how slowly the story surfaced.

In the first couple of weeks following the Feb. 26 fatal shooting and Zimmerman's release after claiming self-defense under Florida's so-called "stand your ground" law, few Americans knew anything about it.

In fact, the news coverage was so sparse after Zimmerman walked away that night without charges, a physical examination or any subsequent investigation that the public radio show "On the Media" on March 23 devoted two segments to the issue of the case's coverage.

The show's co-host, Brooke Gladstone, interviewed two African-American journalists -- Trymaine Lee of The Huffington Post and Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, who were among the few to cover the story early. They are interviews worth hearing.

"I think we're still dealing with complications of race and stereotype, even within our newsrooms," Lee told Gladstone when she asked why the media had been slow to respond.

Later Gladstone, who noted these two men and black columnist Charles Blow of The New York Times kept the Martin shooting before a national audience, said, "I just think that makes a very strong argument for diversity in the newsroom."

It's too early to know how the Trayvon Martin case will be resolved. But the verdict is in on whether American newsrooms have worked hard enough in recent years to diversify, and it is a resounding "no."

This isn't a small matter.

Years ago, I worked as a consultant for the Maynard Institute, an Oakland, Calif., organization dedicated to the integration and improvement of journalism. It believes, among other things, that one of journalism's highest callings is "to see ourselves and our communities whole."

That is difficult to do when the vast majority of news leaders see those communities through the prism of white America. (Yes, a good reporter can provide insight into anyone's life experience. But reporters and managers are nonetheless shaped -- in their outlook and story interests -- by the various components of their own backgrounds.)

In an article on the Trayvon Martin case, Maynard Institute President Dori Maynard put it this way:

"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."

Most white Americans I know, academics included, bristle at the term "institutional racism." It is a form of racism that can be unintentional and carried out without malice. It also is deeply embedded in the way American society goes about its business. It refers to a world in which institutions operate in ways that reflect the stereotypes and cultural beliefs ingrained in the dominant, white culture -- the very thing Maynard is writing about.

In newsrooms, as elsewhere, those ingrained misperceptions affect coverage. When a white kid gets shot and killed in a wealthy suburb, no one sits around a newsroom wondering whether the story is worth covering. This is big news. But when a black kid gets killed somewhere less affluent -- and especially if that kid is wearing a hoodie -- it is seen, as Lee told Gladstone, as another "garden-variety killing."

Such assumptions shape the nature, speed and depth of coverage -- assumptions like, "something bad must have been going down; the kid, undoubtedly, was up to no good." And the story either doesn't get covered, or gets covered perfunctorily.

That is institutional racism. And, I suspect, it helped shape the slow response to the Trayvon Martin story.

If journalists are going to see their communities whole, they need to stop trafficking in stick figures, stop making assumptions -- for example, that kids who wear hoodies are somehow "hoods," or that kids who are born with a certain skin color mean more harm to others than those who aren't.