Panel discussion on race and media issues in Martin-Zimmerman case

08/09/13 Samuel Johnson
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The implications of the Zimmerman trial and the subsequent nationwide discussion about racism was the topic of a community forum held at USF’s Patel Center Thursday evening. A group of lawyers, journalists and a representative from the NAACP mulled over legal details of the case before answering questions from the 100 member audience.

Jenise Morgan is president of the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists which organized the forum along with the George Edgecomb Bar Association. Morgan said avoiding journalist bias on a topic involving race is a tough balancing act.

”I guess I get both worlds in a sense. And it is very difficult because this story touched us so much. Because, in a sense, each person in the media has family members who have been arrested; family members who've had brushes with the law. So it's just very difficult.”

Last month Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. According to Federal Public Defender Alec Hall, the defense conducted the trial along standard operating procedures. He said the collective peaceful opposition to the verdict is proof of a healing society.

”I think in the first time, in a long time in American history, we say black and white and other people of color and non-color marching against right and wrong. We must respect the jury verdict because it was justice. They had their day in court; and the jury system in America spoke loudly and clearly. We respected that. But in the event we have the freedom of speech. I appreciated the diversity of people who spoke out against the wrongness of what happened in the case.”

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Ben Montgomery knows the Zimmerman case intimately. He spent the last 2 years covering the trial and stories revolving around Stand Your Ground laws. While some have argued the case shouldn’t be about race, that was Montgomery’s main take away.

”...White people, frankly, who I've heard from, who leave me voice messages at 6:30 a.m. after I've written a story about this case. Who send me e-mails and send me letter which aren't signed and have no return address. I thought maybe there was a chance that that way of thinking was on it's way out. But I think, for whatever reason, this case has given people the license to embrace this bias that really doesn't have any place in a civilized society.”

Many in the black community believe there is systemic racism flowing through American society. Carolyn Collins, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, said even influential African-American families aren’t immune to racial profiling.

”My son said he will not move back here because he was stopped against his SUV Toyota. And the only thing that saved him is when they (police) found as they let him go in his wallet...out on the outskirts of Hillsborough County coming back from another doctor's friends of his; they looked at his driver's license and saw doctor. And when they saw it the said; 'excuse is doctor we were looking for someone who looked like you with tinted windows.' No how did you see him in his car with tinted windows?”

Just before the Zimmerman trial began, Tampa Bay Times writer, Eric Deggans, was penning his new book: Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation. He said traditional and social media both shape and expose public opinion.

”...And so the initial coverage was fueled by this idea that this overweight comic looking guy killed this unarmed kid. And then there was a backlash against that and people started digging into Trayvon Martin's social media accounts. And they started unearthing all these unflattering photos and tweets...The pendulum began shift in another direction. So it was interesting to see what the world kind of did to this story once it kind of got out there. That's what the book kind of talks about in a nutshell. And in a weird way we just relived it all through the trial and the aftermath. The same dynamics I talk about in the book happened again.”

On August 17, the Beulah Baptist Institutional Church will host a Trayvon Martin Stand Our Ground for Justice teen summit in Tampa.

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What were some of the general questions that were directed toward the panel, and what was the profession of your panelist?