Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist who has written extensively on some of the most complex race-related issues facing Americans, used the Trayvon Martin shooting as a case study in the relationship between journalism and justice in a talk on campus Thursday.
Martin, a 17-year-old African-American, was shot and killed in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., by George Zimmerman, a community watch volunteer, in February. The Sanford Police Department initially declined to bring charges against Zimmerman — until national outcry led the United States Department of Justice to open an investigation that led to Zimmerman’s arrest in April.
On Thursday, Blow discussed the first column he wrote about the case for The Times in March, “The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin.” He recalled learning details about Martin’s death, which he said felt personally relevant.
“As the father of two black teenage boys, this case hits close to home,” Blow said, quoting his column. “This is the fear that seizes me whenever my boys are out in the world: that a man with a gun and an itchy finger will find them ‘suspicious.’ That passions may run hot and blood run cold. That it might all end with a hole in their chest and hole in my heart. That the law might prove insufficient to salve my loss.”
Reflecting on his personal attachment to the case, Blow said he grappled with the blurred lines between advocacy, activism and journalism.
“Journalism in its purest form in the objective form is not about a pursuit of justice — it is about pursuit of truth. Those things are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they are not the same thing,” Blow said. “Hopefully if you disclose the truth, somebody will make justice in that disclosure. And when those things meet, great. But those are not the same things.”
Blow highlighted the differences between objective news writing and opinion-writing, warning that problems arise when consumers confuse the two. He asserted that objective news reporting does not capture as large of an audience as it used to.
“Because people are not engaging with the kind of straight reporting in the same way that they used to, what we have now is a cult of journalism personality,” Blow said. “What we want to do is be told something that affirms what we already believe by somebody that we like and shares our beliefs.”
Still, Blow said that in the Trayvon Martin case, the voices of journalists were crucial in helping to advance justice.
“If it were not for the people who wrote opinion pieces about Trayvon’s case, it would have never come to a charge,” Blow said. “The fact that a man can shoot an unarmed child doing absolutely wrong, shoot him in the chest, kill him, stand over his body with a gun, go to a police and, on his own words, walk out of that prison without a charge — that would never have changed were it not [covered by] opinion writers. So that is the conundrum.”
In his talk, Blow also touched on the role social media has played in publicizing Martin’s case. Had people not tweeted about it, Blow said, he would not have known or written about the incident.
“At first I didn’t know who Trayvon Martin was [because] people tweet me things all the time. I kind of ignored it but they kept sending … and one day I decided to Google the name,” he said.
Blow added that the case also brought to light the subject of diversity in the media on a broader scale, noting that before Martin’s shooting became widely publicized, it had initially been covered primarily by African American writers. Blow said these journalists were crucial in ultimately bringing the story to the national spotlight.
“All of us [who were writing about Martin] were young, black men in their thirties and forties,” he said. “What would have come of this case if we were not in the position that we were in and not had the purchase that we had?”