Food For Thought: Trayvon Martin – The Media Is Toxic
Author’s Note: This Food For Thought is going to be much different than previous installments, both in content and in tone. While this site normally doesn’t cover politics or topics outside of the entertainment industry, I feel that this message still needs to be expressed.
Author’s Note 2: “The media” in this article represents all major television news stations, newspapers, online news publications, and any other form of media that provides news coverage.
Now understandably, this past year or so has been incredibly trying for the American nation; the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case incited mass protests and riots in major cities across the country, governmental secrets, like the NSA phonetapping millions of Americans, have been leaked by Edward Snowden, the Boston Bombing happened, and it was found that the IRS was targeting political opponents of the Democratic Party. While these incidents are far from entertaining (in fact, there is nothing funny about them), there is a certain part of American culture that somehow manages to do the unthinkable and transform tragedies into major stories that rake in the ratings and views. Indeed, the media has become a really strange phenomenon; while in the past, the press was largely about investigative journalism that helped uncover the truth about some pressing issues, these days the media is about presenting the news in a way that warps the truth for the sake of entertainment or, more dangerously, incites anger for the sake of pursuing an agenda or distracting from real issues. While this type of yellow journalism was looked down upon only decades ago, now it is the standard for every news publication or broadcast. Worst of all, nowhere has the modern reappearance of yellow journalism been more prominent than when the press covers high-profile criminal cases or national tragedies.
America has a strange fascination with the criminal element; the crime drama is one of the most prominent genres on American television, with the likes of NCIS, Dexter, CSI, and Law and Order being only a few of the most popular shows in the nation. Something that I’ve picked up on is that things like murder, rape, or firefights are ‘sexy’ to the American public; in other words, they are the kinds of things that appeal to the inner voyeur in all of us. While you or I would never think of committing those kinds of crimes in real life, human beings by nature like to watch horrible things happen to other people. While driving in Virginia or Florida, traffic would constantly slow down when there has been a crash because everybody wants to see what happened, how many people got hurt, or even if anyone died. It is also part of human nature to look at things in a black and white perspective; it’s us vs. them, the allies vs. the enemies, or one country vs. another country. If we have been presented with a compelling story, we want to root for a hero and see the villain fall. With the entire planet being full of complex, multi-faceted human beings, however, we can’t always look at things in this perspective because real life doesn’t usually function like a television drama. In other words, the world is not so clean-cut.
In February 2012, a tragedy befell the Martin family when their son Trayvon was shot by a man named George Zimmerman, a member of the neighborhood watch who believed the young man to be a suspicious individual. In the criminal trial that followed the shooting, both the prosecution and defense tried to present two very different pictures of what happened that night; the prosecution painted Zimmerman as a murderer, and the defense said this was a case of self-defense. In July 2013, the jury determined that Mr. Zimmerman shot Mr. Martin in self-defense because there was no evidence that second-degree murder, or even manslaughter, occurred. Personally I could not imagine the unbelievable pain of losing a son like this, and it is a tragedy that a life was lost. Legally, however, the outcome of this case was determined based on the information presented to the jury, and they came to the right conclusion based on the fact that there was not enough evidence showing that Zimmerman killed Martin for no reason. That is how the legal system works. With the trial finally reaching its conclusion, we would have expected the Trayvon Martin case to be just like any other tragedy happening every day in the United States, like a shooting in Richmond, VA that left 18-year old Jett Higham dead. As former NAACP leader C.L. Bryant said when discussing Trayvon’s death in 2012:
“Why not be angry about the wholesale murder that goes on in the streets of Newark and Chicago?” he asked. “Why isn’t somebody angry about that six-year-old girl who was killed on her steps last weekend in a cross fire when two gang members in Chicago start shooting at each other? Why is there no outrage about that?”
Former NAACP leader accuses Sharpton and Jackson of ‘exploiting’ Trayvon Martin – by Alex Pappas, DailyCaller
Despite all of that, however, the media had other plans for how the nation would view Zimmerman’s trial.
Ever since the shooting, major news networks tried to label what transpired as an issue of race, infuriating the masses and boosting their ratings. For example, the media tried saying (and still continues to say) that a white person killed Martin despite the fact that Zimmerman is actually Hispanic. Even after later learning Zimmerman’s race, however, the media then called him a ‘white Hispanic,’ the key trigger word being ‘white.’ Perhaps what is more telling, however, is that NBC actually edited the 911 call from Zimmerman in order to make it seem like this was a racially-charged killing. Here is the edited version NBC aired:
“This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.”
Shameless: NBC Never Tells Its Viewers It Smeared Zimmerman with Doctored Audio – by Matthew Philbin, Newsbusters
Meanwhile, the unedited audio reads more like this:
‘Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.”
Dispatcher: “OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?”
Zimmerman: “He looks black.”’
(For the actual audio, you can find the edited and unedited 911 call here. This was the only video I could find with both the edited and unedited audio, so please ignore the original poster’s silly Jerry Springer joke in between the two calls).
Notice how a good chunk of that recording is missing in the edited audio, and you can see that the context of the whole thing changes (Is it really any wonder that, after the conclusion of the criminal trial, Zimmerman is now suing NBC?). Despite the media’s irresponsible journalism, the entire nation watched the criminal proceedings on the news with such intensity that you would think they were watching a sporting event or concert. After the verdict was handed down in July, everybody then went into a frenzy and two opposing camps were formed; one camp of people is convinced that Martin should have been shot because he was nothing but trouble, and the other camp has taken to the streets to seek real justice for Martin because his murderer is still running free. With the media exploiting the racial divide in America, and, not surprisingly, causing that divide to widen, the media’s news coverage of Zimmerman is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with modern news coverage and journalism.
As anyone in the United States knows by now, each news station seeks a specific audience, just like with politicians; for example, Fox News desires a conservative base, and MSNBC desires a liberal base. Beyond this, a dangerous trend has emerged where every news station presents a very different picture of a story based on their own political beliefs/personal biases instead of based on just the facts. As an example that I know will resonate with a lot of Americans, if you were to tune in to Fox News and then MSNBC on, say, any day during a Presidential campaign, you would be presented with two very different pictures of Presidential candidates. Just looking at the 2008 and 2012 elections, you had the media pick up on an otherwise inconsequential detail, like Obama’s birth certificate not being made public or Romney saying he would get rid of PBS and ‘fire’ Big Bird,’ and blow it up into something that they saw as actually newsworthy. The internet would then follow suit; remember when your Facebook feeds were soon clogged with “Mittens Romney hates Big Bird. Stupid republican!” or “Obama, you communist/terrorist swine! Reveal your birth certificate!”? Instead of focusing on what issues the candidates wanted to address in their Presidencies, like how to potentially fix the economy, more people were instead voting for each candidate based on whether or not they liked Big Bird.
Using news coverage during the presidential elections as an example, we can see that the media operates as such: instead of presenting facts objectively in order to inform the public at large, like what the press used to do, nowadays publications and news networks are more concerned with sharing personal opinions and causing outrage from sensationalism in order to get more ad revenue. To make everything come full circle, this sensationalism also feeds into the entertainment factor that the American public gets from media coverage of national tragedies or major court cases. The dangerous thing that comes from this is not simply the fact that these sorts of things are transformed into entertainment, but instead that they are dangerously oversimplified to the extent where the actual truth is obscured. This clip from the Daily Show is a pretty good example of this oversimplification. Key facts are left out in this discussion, such as the fact that Zimmerman was being attacked, and that, despite one’s personal feelings on gun laws, this altercation occurred in a stand-your-ground state where this type of self-defense is legal.
Just like with some members of the American public voting for presidential candidates based on arbitrary things that the media felt like turning into major news stories, the media presenting a biased and oversimplified account of what happened in the Trayvon Martin case causes more harm than good. When people look to a major publication or television channel for providing the news, it is supposed to be one’s journalistic duty to report the facts and inform people. The media can be used as a tool to inform and begin change in social policy if something is brought to light that people would have otherwise been ignorant about; with the media reporting on the NSA breaking privacy rules thousands of times per year after Edward Snowden leaked secret government documents, public outrage caused the government to propose some major overhauls in the NSA’s surveillance programs. However, if the media is used improperly like it has been during the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman debacle, then dangerous things can come about like the populace at large (or even famous and influential celebrities) threatening Zimmerman’s life after he was acquitted. A potent example? How about Roseanne Barr and Spike Lee both posting the home addresses of George Zimmerman or his parents:
In conclusion, the media has been doing some really dangerous things lately in terms of misinforming the public and causing a lot of harm in the United States. Long gone are the days where journalistic integrity mattered and just the facts were reported on, because as the Zimmerman story has clearly shown us, we are living in an age where the media is used to distort a story and detrimentally manipulate public opinion. More importantly, the media is used to distract us from far more distressing realities that many news stations fail to report on, like the Constitution-Free Zone that was established right under our noses. To combat the media’s distortion of the truth, the only thing that we can hope to do is always question what we see on television. Of course, I don’t advocate the type of thinking adapted by conspiracy theorists; instead, I advocate a healthy skepticism that leads to always researching the facts on a story and learning everything there is to know about it. The more that we can learn about something, the more informed we become and the better that we can understand something.