When a young white girl goes missing in America, it immediately becomes a national story. Nancy Grace dedicates her show to every aspect of every missing girl, regardless how long a case drags out. These girls, their parents and everyone associated with them gets a magazine cover, or two, or three.
However, when a young black person is killed or goes missing in America, very few people outside their family hear about it. If not for his parents, their attorney, the current political season and the upswing of social media, this might too have been the case with Trayvon Martin.
I am not going to comment on the facts of this case. I am not qualified to remark on Florida Law nor knowledgeable enough to weigh in on the handling of the case by local authorities. My thoughts here are on how and why the American media spends disproportionate energy and resources on crimes involving white victims over those involving victims who are something other than white.
Historically, the homicide victimization rate for blacks is 6 times higher than that for whites (19.6 homicides per 100,000 versus 3.3). So, one might reason that more media attention is paid to white victims because they are, quite simply, rarer. On the other hand, one might surmise that the media -- especially media in areas with a sizable non white population -- has become inured to the killing of black Americans.
In my opinion, however, the truth lies somewhere deeper.
The 2010 Census reported that 63.7 percent of America is white; 12.6 percent is black; 16.3 percent is Hispanic or Latino and 4.8 percent is Asian. Sixty-four percent of America is white, 36 percent is not. However, The Radio Television Digital News Association reports that, as of 2011, 79.5 percent of all TV News jobs are held by white Americans, while 20.5 percent are held by minorities of any kind -- an under-representation of minority Americans by a factor of nearly 2. Not great, but not awful either. However, 92.5 percent of all Television General Managers and 96.6 percent of Network TV Affiliate GMs are white, while only 7.5 percent of all TV GMs and 3.4 percent of Local TV Affiliates are another race. That is an under-representation of minority Americans by a factor of 5 on a national scale and a factor of 11 on a local scale. minority representation in the Newspaper business is similarly tilted. According to The American Society of News Editors, only 12.79 percent of all newspaper jobs are held by someone who is not white, with only 11 percent of Supervisor jobs held by non white Americans.
While it is great that black, Hispanic and Asian Americans are getting more jobs as reporters, photographers, camera operators and art directors, it is not the rank and file who determine which stories are covered and what America deems as "newsworthy." These decisions are made at the Editorial and Director levels, where representation of the "minority" point of view is stunningly far behind that of the population they serve.
As Brian Stelter wrote in the New York Times, it took nearly a month for the killing of Trayvon Martin to become national news; and that only happened after his family -- and thousands of online activists -- repeatedly demanded attention for his story and secured the release of the 911 recording from the night of his shooting. In fact, as Brooke Gladstone reported on On The Media and Kelly McBride wrote about on Poynter, if not for several black journalists, including Trymaine Lee of the Huffington Post, Ta-Nehisi Coats of the Atlantic, Charles M. Blow of the New York Times, and Reverend Al Sharpton of MSNBC, it is doubtful anyone would know who Trayvon Martin is and was.
Please, PLEASE, don't get me wrong -- I am not saying there is overt or purposeful bias in America's Newsrooms. I do submit, though, that the stunning under-representation of minorities at the TOP of our national and local news organizations creates an institutional lack of empathy for minority victims of violent crime. How else to explain the blanket coverage given every missing white girl in America, while it takes a month and a movement to get similar attention for the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, within eyeshot of his father's house?
In order to better compete in the age of social media and asymmetrical media consumption, America's media business must become more diverse. We cannot hope to serve the evolving needs of the American community, if we do not understand the ever-changing nature of the American experience. How can we report a story that we simply do not see? At this point, the failure of the media to evolve with the changing demography of those it serves is a demonstration of an industry slowly going blind to its own best interests.
The media, at its best, is meant to be a unifying experience, serving all people, equally. An unbiased, open media is the backbone of democracy. Yet, the story of Trayvon Martin came out despite the media, not because of it. As this story plays out, there will undoubtedly be calls to change many things in this country. If we, as an industry, hope to remain relevant, we must do what we can to change, from within.