*Last week the Poynter Institute held a live chat which examined the topic: Should journalists show support for Trayvon Martin? What types of free speech should journalists be free to exercise?
The chat was particularly timely in that many on-camera and production staffers at ESPN were moved to show their solidarity for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by tweeting pictures of themselves wearing hooded sweatshirts and signing online petitions.
ESPN immediately banned their employees from participating in any show of solidarity because it violated company policy. But later ESPN revised their decision stating:
“It’s a tragic situation that has led to much thoughtful discussion throughout the company. As a result, in this circumstance, we have decided to allow this particular expression of human sympathy.”
As you can well imagine, the online chat was a spirited and lively discussion with most participants – who were professional journalists and journalism students – drawing a clear line in the sand against journalists making their personal views part of the a story and taking a public stand on social issues.
The tenets of journalism preclude journalists and today’s content managers from injecting their personal opinions into their stories. In J-school the emphasis is on being impartial, fair and balanced in reporting the story and not fusing personal insights into a story. While free speech is a value that is upheld and defended, the journalism code of ethics provides voluntary guidelines of what is considered ethical behavior in covering stories.
But the Trayvon Martin case was so egregious that it tugged at the heart strings of a nation, blurring the lines of objectivity and impartiality of those who have taken a pledge to be impartial.
In an unorthodox move NBC decided to do something novel, breaking from convention. They used the Trayvon Martin story as a platform to raise our consciousness about race in a very personal way.
In addition to reporting the story, they allowed their on-air and production staff to be part of the story. On the weekly news show Rock Center with Brian Williams, several of their anchors, correspondents and production staff shared their poignant and personal reflections about the Trayvon Martin case, their feelings about race and their experiences about being black in American. They included anchors Lester Holt and Tamron Hall, correspondent Ron Allen and many others. View the 7 minute video here.
The Trayvon Martin case has ignited a national discussion about race because the perceptions about his race appear to have played a seminal role in the killing of the young man. I don’t think anyone can escape having this conversation in their homes or communities in light of what has happened and what has not happened in that the gunman has not been arrested because of the now infamous “Stand your ground” defense.
If you are black in America you undoubtedly have stories about racism and disparate treatment that either you or a family endured because of the color of your skin. I have my stories as well. And I bet you can recount some painful lessons either you or someone you know has learned about the perceptions of race that were devastating and indelible. I can recount them too.
Here are my top three:
Ink overshadows intellect. This was a painful and humiliating lesson my son learned over ten years while attending a predominately white high school here in Los Angeles. His counselor had enrolled him in an honors math class, making him the only African American in that class. When the instructor saw him sitting in the front row he said, “This is honors math. If you are here by mistake, don’t he afraid to leave now, no hurt, no foul.” My son stayed put. The instructor repeated his disclaimer again as my son doodled on the cover of his notebook. Next the instructor passed out index cards and instructed each student to write their name, math classes they have taken, their math grades and their counselor’s name. He collected the cards, rifled though them to find my son’s information and then grilled him about the veracity of his information as if he’s on a witness stand. My son said it was awful, embarrassing and made him feel like he was perpetrating a fraud.
Color trumps character. I learned this lesson in college when I worked part time at a retail store in a predominately white community. I was one of a few African Americans that worked there. I was part of their equal opportunity outreach program. I valued the opportunity and quickly become one of their high performing retail employees. Soon customers began to send letters of appreciation and praise to the department manager and store manager about my customer service. Sadly, the store was experiencing a high rate of pilferage they believed was occurring daily. The immediate suspects were the three African American employees, two of whom were men that worked in the automotive department. At the end of my shift while clocking out, security escorted me to “the office” while my colleagues snickered as I took the walk of shame. The security officers questioned me for an hour, searched me and my possessions. They found nothing. I was demoralized. Yet the following day sku numbers of merchandise were missing again. So the thieves were still heartedly at work and it was obvious they were looking in the wrong place.
Being out of context elicits contempt. This is one we’ve all experienced at some point in life. It’s like the old comparison questions on a test, you know the ones that give you four choices, three which are related and one which is not and the question is always, “which one of these things is out of place when compared to the others?” This has happened to me in the workplace in professional positions where I have been the only African American. People naturally assumed I was part of the “administrative support team” and not part of “line staff.” I always marveled at their twisted lips and furled brows when they realized I wasn’t going to scurry off and fetch them a cup of coffee. I was out of context, in a position I wasn’t expected to be in or respected because I wasn’t where they thought I should be. It’s happened to me when I’ve walked into a high end department store or boutique, after all why would I be there unless I intended to take something? It’s happened countless times to my sons while driving through certain neighborhoods. I recall one frightening incident where my oldest son was literally chased by police while driving home from a high school basketball game, forced to pull over with guns drawn, forced to the ground while they went through his car only to uncover he was one of the basketball players at the local high school. They ran his license information, and subsequently let him go. He was told he allegedly fit the profile of someone who had just committed a violent crime. They offered no apology. Needless to say that incident changed his life.
Got stories? I’d like to hear them. Have lessons you’d like to share? Perhaps I can share them in a subsequently article. Send me an email and let me know your thoughts in a paragraph or two.
Veronica Hendrix is a syndicated columnist and feature writer whose work has covered the span of the human continuum – from clinical trials of male contraceptives, to the gang violence. She is the owner of Bromont Avenue Foods. She is the author of “Red Velvet Gourmet Spice Rub and Seasoning Heart Healthy Recipes.” Visit http://bromontavefoods.com for more information. For comments, interviews, speaking engagements or moderator requests please send an email to email@example.com.