Charles Blow, a New York Times visual op-ed columnist, gave a presentation at Cornell University titled “Journalism and Justice: The Trayvon Martin Case” on Thursday, focusing on opinion media coverage of the case.
Blow’s speech began with a recap of the details of the shooting and its aftermath, including the circumstances of Martin’s stay in Sanford, Fla., George Zimmerman’s wrongful possession of a firearm as a watchman and the case’s handling by the Sanford police department. Blow said though it is a national tragedy when any person is murdered, the questions of justice surrounding the case elevated it to national discussion.
“This case in particular was not about an extraordinary death. It was about an extraordinary inequity in the application of justice,” Blow said. “This case was about who is deserving of the presumption of guilt and innocence: the dead boy with the candy and the soda, or the grown man who shot him in the chest and is standing over his body with a gun?”
Blow also talked about the rise of opinion journalism, which he said lead to a politicization of the Martin shooting by the media after comments were made by figures such as President Barack Obama, and activism on the part of people such as news anchor Rev. Al Sharpton. Blow said this led to ideological attacks on Martin’s character, and the case became about right versus left, rather than about a functioning judicial system.
“Journalism, in its purest form, in its objective form, is not about pursuit of justice. It is about pursuit of truth,” Blow said. “Those things are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they are not the same thing.”
However, Blow said the opinion journalism surrounding the Martin case might have helped bring Zimmerman to trial.
“It’s a tricky thing. If it were not for the people who wrote opinion pieces about Trayvon’s case, we may never have come to a charge, we may never have gotten to the place where we’re going to have a judge and jury decide who’s innocent or who’s guilty,” Blow said.
Cornell freshman Michael Sun said he was familiar with Blow from his appearances on MSNBC’s “The Last Word” and he said, while he found the recap of the crime’s details “evident,” he appreciated the focus on media coverage.
“I found the journalistic integrity points much more valuable,” Sun said. “I thought it delved a lot into questions of journalistic integrity and the increasing conflict we’re seeing with the polarization of our country, and a lot of the bias present in cable news media.”
Susie Marion Kossack, an Ithaca resident, said she was motivated to come to the talk because of her involvement with the Shawn Greenwood Working Group, which pushed for investigations into the shooting of 29-year-old Greenwood in his van during a narcotics investigation by Ithaca police in Februrary 2010.
Kossack said the circumstances that led to Martin’s death were not unique to Sanford, Fla., as the same conditions exist in Ithaca.
“We’re a troubled culture,” Kossack said. “We don’t have a basic moral fiber and we have lost it, and somehow we have to get in back. Even here in politically correct Ithaca, it’s a mess.”
Blow said this case highlighted the role of diversity in media, as the traditional journalists he knew were writing about the case were young black men. He said he wondered what would have come of the case without these writers being in positions to cover the story.
“They were writing about it in these very passionate, to me very personal, kinds of ways. And in my first column I also wrote about it in a personal and passionate kind of way, and I am unapologetic about that fact.”