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Examining Coverage Of The Trayvon Martin Case


The Florida judge in the case of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed teenager Trayvon Martin in February, set bail this morning of $150,000. Zimmerman took the stand during the hearing and told Martin's parents that he was sorry for the loss of their son. Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder, but he claims self-defense. Cable TV news channels carried the bail hearing live.


Which is not surprising, because media coverage of this case has been intense. Our regular TV critic Eric Deggans says that's partly because each news organization has a different target audience to serve.

How did this all start?

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Basically, it was more or less a local story of someone who was killed after a fight, until about March 8th. The family was concerned about how the police were reacting. They'd engaged an attorney, and the attorney reached out to a public relations guy who got Reuters and "CBS This Morning" to do stories. So this was the first time that we saw sort of a national footprint on this.

INSKEEP: But still not huge, at that point.

DEGGANS: Still not huge, but at least there was a sense that there was some interest. And, you know, I interviewed the public relations guy who got Reuters and "CBS This Morning" to do stories, so this was the first time that we saw sort of a national footprint on this.

INSKEEP: But still not huge at that point.

DEGGANS: Still not huge, but at least there was a sense that there was some interest. And, you know, I interviewed the public relations guy a little and he told me that he was able to hold a press conference later that day that got the local press involved. So suddenly you have the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald doing stories, and that starts to build.

INSKEEP: Now we've had reporting on this network about the way the story developed, and we heard from a syndicated columnist, George Curry, who talked about the role of the black media, in particular, in pushing the story. And here's how he put it. Let's listen.

GEORGE CURRY: The black press plays a unique role because they know, right away, and can recognize these kinds of stories and the value of them.

INSKEEP: Ever since he said that on our air, I've been thinking about that phrase, recognizing the value of a story, which I took to mean that for the African-American press, this is an important news story, but it was also an opportunity to say something - which was what?

DEGGANS: It was an opportunity to say that sometimes there is a suspicion that the institutions in society don't work for people of color the way they work for white people. And, you know, I think the central concern here, was that maybe the police, maybe the prosecutors who were initially involved with this did not do as thorough a job as they should have. And there is a black oriented news paper online in that area, that had been staying on top of this. We also had Trymaine Lee, a black reporter who works for the Huffington Post, so we had some reporters of colors who were working for mainstream news organizations and we also had the black press really focusing in on this early.

INSKEEP: But then we had even more people recognize the value of this story - to them. You have talked to us about how different news organizations have leveraged - as you put it - this story. What do you mean by that?

DEGGANS: Well, I think at some point, this story became different things for different media outlets, depending on how they galvanized audiences. So MSNBC is obviously focused on a more liberal message, and I think they're very proud of the fact that they are the most watched cable channel for African-Americans. And, of course, they employ the Reverend Al Sharpton, who is also a spokesman for the family.

On Fox News, there is sense of worrying about a rush to judgment, trying to reflect George Zimmerman, the shooter's side. And particularly when Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson get involved with an issue, because Fox News' audience focuses on white, middle-aged conservative males, those are the kind of guys for whom Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have the least cache (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: Almost a negative cache.

DEGGANS: Very much a negative.

INSKEEP: They're interesting, but not in a positive way.

DEGGANS: Very much a negative. Very much a negative. So once they're involved there's a sense, oh, this must be a hoax, that there must be something hinky about this. And it's all built on the audience that they're speaking to and the message that they use to galvanize that audience.

INSKEEP: And have media outlets tailored their coverage of the story to that particular audience that they're seeking?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, I do think that some news outlets would probably quibble with that. If you went to MSNBC and said are you changing how you cover the story because you want to reach out to liberal viewers or you want to reach out to black viewers, I don't know what they would say about that. But as a professional viewer, my sense is that their message is very different than the message of Fox News. And I'm not just talking about media outlets that have an ideological focus. CNN is an outlet that's focused on keeping them honest - that's a catch phrase they use a lot. So they are very invested in finding heroes and villains in stories and then telling those stories. So I think for them the Trayvon Martin case was also important because they had a clear hero and a clear villain, or a clear victim and a clear villain. And now the case has gotten murkier and I think it's gotten more complicated for them to cover.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is media critic for The Tampa Bay Times and regular guest on this program.

Eric, thanks for coming by.

DEGGANS: Thank you.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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