Breaking news and reporting on culture is tough work. It requires content creators to constantly be “on” and in touch with what people are watching, listening to and talking about. We have to use these conversations and events to come up with fresh angles and ask hard questions in order to stay ahead of the curve — or, at the very least, keep up with it. On any given day, there is likely to be an abundance of story opportunities. But some stories are not without proverbial baggage, and choosing to cover them can be extremely problematic.
I would argue that this is certainly the case with recent coverage of George Zimmerman. The coverage of Zimmerman’s latest antics — namely, trying to sell the gun with which he shot Trayvon Martin — raises several important questions: In choosing to report certain news items, what stories are being erased and devalued in the process? What reader/viewer/listener emotions are being relied on, and why? And lastly, how does this coverage reflect the values of the publication or entity?
The death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 was a major event in US culture. The subsequent events — including the trial of the man who shot him but was ultimately found not guilty of his murder, i.e. George Zimmerman — have drastically shifted conversations about race in America, brought boiling racial tensions to the surface of the country’s consciousness, and were a catalyst for the most powerful social movement since Civil Rights, Black Lives Matter.
The lingering effects of Martin’s death, and the similar events that followed in 2014 — in New York with Eric Garner and Ferguson with Mike Brown — have sustained media outlets since then. Many have taken a greater interest in incidents of police brutality and other state-based violence against black people, the activism work against it, and legal processes, if any, associated with these cases. In the Martin case, though, many news outlets have unfortunately taken an continuing interest, an interest that Zimmerman clearly relishes and encourages. The continuing coverage has allowed him to develop into perhaps the decade’s worst troll.
Zimmerman has made scathing remarks about Black Lives Matter, which he considers to be violent and anti-police. He is reluctant to endorse Donald Trump but is staunchly against Hillary Clinton, who he considers a liar. He claims that Martin’s parents failed at raising their son properly, which is the reason Martin is dead. And he has recently auctioned the gun that he used to shoot Martin for a profit. Not only is Zimmerman a killer, he is the worst kind of narcissist, using the death of a kid at his hands as a platform for attention and wealth. And blogs, news sources, and Twitter have decided to feed the troll by giving these stories headlines and covering them as cultural news.
For what it’s worth, I completely expected this from conservative pundits and outlets, who have embraced opposition to racial justice in any form. But to see liberals and progressives following suit is disturbing. Obviously traffic for stories like this in liberal outlets is driven by feelings of rage and shock from readers who detest Zimmerman and what he stands for. But in what ways does strengthening Zimmerman’s platform and increasing his social capital aid liberal and progressive values for a more just world where the stories of the most marginalized are included in the fold? What happens to Martin’s family, or his friend Rachel Jeantel — a black girl who was on the phone with Martin in his final moments and played a key witness role in the trial — when Zimmerman is continuously the focus of these stories?
So long as the focus remains on Zimmerman, there are fewer opportunities to examine how violence affects families of color. Instead, audiences are positioned to understand the intricacies of hate and racist ideologies. There is no justice or honor for Martin, or any victim of racist violence, in that.
I know all I need to know about George Zimmerman. He is alive and free to live his life and make an ass of himself while Trayvon Martin is dead. I don’t care how he feels about politics or the family of the boy he killed. I will not share or retweet any more posts related to him, unless they involve him being held accountable for his crimes and his bullshit. I will not help him prosper by sending clicks and traffic to posts that increase his exposure.
Journalists, commentators, and reporters define what news is, just as much as they cover it. And there is definitely room to ask: when and how should that media power be leveraged to withhold information? What possibilities for a better and more just world exist when we do?