Don't Let Character Assassination Kill The Real Story
Time for journalists to stop spinning stories and return to their principles
Excerpts from a speech delivered by Shawn P. Williams at the Keynote Luncheon for the Society of Professional Journalist's Region 8 Conference. The event was held on March 23, 2012 in Ft. Worth, Texas at the Downtown Hilton Hotel.
I would be remiss if I did not spend the few minutes you’ve been gracious enough to give me today to share a few thoughts on the situation with Trayvon Martin, the 17 year old African-American male who was shot down in Florida after a trip to the convenience store.
You know when I started DallasSouthBlog.com in 2006, I thought maybe I would be able to help portray positive images of African Americans to combat the negative images we often saw (and still see for that matter) on television. My hope was that we might reach a point where we as a community in Dallas and we as a nation would not automatically judge a young black man by the fact that he’s wearing a hoodie.
I must respectfully disagree with a journalist who I once greatly respected. Geraldo Rivera said on Friday he would “bet money” that Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have been fatally shot if he had not been wearing a hoodie. Geraldo went on to say that “when you see a black or Latino youngster, particularly on the street, you walk to the other side of the street. You try to avoid the confrontation,” Geraldo says.
Back in 2006, there were very few outlets where African Americans could go to express their outrage at comments like Geraldo’s or injustices like what we’ve seen over the last few weeks with Trayvon Martin, where a neighborhood patrolman cold pull the trigger on a kid walking down the street and hide behind a Stand Your Ground Law.
The plight of Trayvon’s parents have been greatly helped by social media. It serves as a reminder that African Americans were the first to use the internet and social media as an effective tool for social change.
The reason why I wrote my book Blogging While Black was because I wanted to make sure the history of the Black Blogging Movement was not forgotten. Before the Tea Party, before the Arab Spring, before Occupy Wall Street, African Americans used the internet to express generations of frustration with the media.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a renewal of the spirit from the Black Blogger Movement, as Facebook and Twitter and Youtube spread the story of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, shot down in cold blood holding only a bag of skittles and a can of ice tea.
It was almost a year from the time that 14-year old Shaquanda Cotton of Paris, Texas was sentenced until (The Chicago Tribune’s) Howard Witt wrote an article that stirred the Black Web Roots. It was nine months between the fight involving the Jena Six and the Jena March. It’s been only a month since Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch patrolman who was told to quit following him by a 911 dispatcher.
Unfortunately, we see journalists and reporters making the same types of judgments as the neighborhood patrolman in Florida. Maybe it’s not a hoodie that leads to a rush to judge, but maybe it’s the preacher in a 5 button suit. Maybe it’s a council person who splits his or her verbs. Maybe it’s the community leader with a think accent.
While pen to paper or fingers to keyboard may not inflict a fatal wound, character assassinations have real consequences that too few reporters acknowledge these days. Like it or not, our biases and judgements affect our reporting, and too often people of color are disproportionately affected.
Yesterday my son and daughter and I were at McDonald’s. We ordered pancakes and I sent my son to the counter to get a couple of packets of butter. I noticed he was wearing a hoodie, with the hood pulled up on his head. I saw a 10 year old boy who loves to have fun, play with his sister, a gifted student who I wish would study just a little bit harder in school.
Trayvon’s been described as being a fun loving kid who loved sports, Avatar The Last Airbender, and still liked to go to Chuck E. Cheeses. Those same things could be said about my son, and probably the same for many of you in the room who have kids.
As I looked at my son in McDonalds, I realized someone could see him with his hoodie on and let their preconceived notions and bias influence how they treat him. I thought about how devastated Trayvon’s parents must be, as they ask only that the man who shot and killed their son be arrested and let the justice system decide his fate.
If any of you are ever asked to write a story about my son, about his greatest successes or the inevitable failures that we all must experience in life, all I ask is that you be fair. Acknowledge the biases that you bring to the story. Acknowledge the opposing views that may be held by people who do not look like you, who may have had different experiences, whose opinions you may not even understand.
I ask that you don’t spin his story to sell more paper or entice more clicks. That you don’t see him as an opportunity for gotcha journalism, passed off as investigative reporting. Though the business of journalism is hurting, the need for the true principles represented by the profession have never been more valuable.
And the individuals who choose to use the news to make a difference are also more valuable than ever. Whether it’s for a newspaper, or a website or even a public relations agency, all I ask, is that you be true to yourself, and true to those who need you most. Someone like my son or like the late Trayvon Martin.