Opinion: What we can learn from Trayvon Martin shooting

Editor’s Note: Eric Deggans serves as TV/media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, and is the author of "Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation," a look at how prejudice, racism and sexism fuels some elements of modern media.
By Eric Deggans, Special to CNN
    (CNN) -- One year after an explosion of press attention made it one of the most-covered news stories in the first half of 2012, the question seems obvious:
    Has the news media learned anything about covering race issues in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting?
    Considering how little attention the case garners today, it is tough to remember just 12 months ago how much journalists obsessed on this story, when unarmed, African-American teen Martin was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in a Sanford, Florida, subdivision on Feb. 26, 2012.
    For a time, it was second in coverage only to the presidential election, as Martin’s family pressed a reluctant Sanford police department and Florida prosecutors to arrest Zimmerman for fatally shooting a teenager armed only with a bag of candy and a bottle of iced tea. As condemnation of Zimmerman grew, a cadre of supporters, often in conservative media outlets, arose to decry a rush to judgment while challenging the family’s depiction of Martin as an innocent child.
    Too often, news audiences seemed caught in the middle, ill-served by coverage which often seemed focused on serving the news outlet’s own priorities as much as informing the public.
    Twelve months later, it may seem as if little has changed. But there are subtle lessons to be learned about the shape of modern media from the impact of the Trayvon Martin case, some that are shared in "Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation:"
    We only talk about race issues in crisis.
    One reason so much coverage of the Martin case spun off into issues such as racial profiling, fashion (Martin was wearing a hooded sweatshirt when killed), murder rates among African Americans and the power of racism allegations, is because mainstream media outlets spend so little time talking about race issues outside the pressing controversy of a major news story. When big news strikes centered on race, that’s often the only time the world pays attention.
    Unfortunately, that’s when people are least likely to have an open-minded discussion about anything, as passions rise and positions harden. In an environment like that, quality journalism looking at the racial elements of "stand your ground" laws (allowing individuals to defend themselves with deadly force in public spaces if they feel their life is in danger) or racial profiling may get lots of attention, but their lessons can be lost as people search to find confirmation for their own convictions.
    Subjects of big news stories will increasingly become media outlets themselves.
    Once he agreed to serve as Zimmerman’s attorney after his mid-April arrest, Orlando-area attorney Mark O’Mara set up websites, Twitter accounts and a Facebook page (now inactive) aimed at releasing their perspective on the case and channeling donations to Zimmerman’s legal defense fund. On his sites, O’Mara provides information on legal filings, critiques press coverage and releases his own statements without relying on journalists’ filter or interpretation.
    His website, for instance, calls an April 22 hearing a “self-defense immunity hearing,” avoiding use of the term “stand your ground,” which has drawn so much negative attention as critics complain the law is flawed and unfairly applied across race lines.
    Even the most basic notions of journalism fairness are challenged by the modern media environment.
    Much as some critics may have complained about liberal activist Al Sharpton serving as both a spokesman for Martin’s family and host of a 6 p.m. show on NBC-owned cable news channel MSNBC, allowing Sharpton to appear in MSNBC’s coverage and also stand at the center of the story seemed to have paid off for the channel.
    MSNBC president Phil Griffin told the website Mediaite that the channel’s audience with black viewers rose 60 percent in 2012, in part because of their coverage on stories of concern to people of color, including the Martin case and voter ID laws seen as unfairly impacting racial minorities. That viewership has helped it move past CNN in prime time ratings, as consumers respond to an ever more ideologically split cable news environment.
    It’s no surprise Zimmerman eventually told his story to conservative Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, who had been asking about a rush to judgment against the shooter since the story’s earliest days.
    But what does it mean when some news channel hosts abandon the notion of being an honest broker in a controversial news story?
    In the end, the frantic pressure forced news outlets to play to their strengths: print outlets tried to own the facts and details, TV (especially on the network morning shows and cable news channels) channeled emotion and reaction, while online platforms concentrated activism and those willing to obsessively focus on the case.
    News outlets may not be much better at covering race now than one year ago, but we news consumers have received a crash course on how these incendiary issues play out in the super-fractured, 24/7 media world.
      Now, another question arises: Can we put those lessons to work the next time a race-based controversy eats up the news cycle?
      The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Deegans.