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The factoring of race into Stand Your Ground legislation

Editor’s note: This is an analysis by Evette Dionne.

Several prominent Stand Your Ground cases in Florida are raising questions about how the American media are covering race and intimate-partner violence.

Michael Giles, a former Air Force member, who is black, shot and wounded three patrons outside a nightclub on Feb 6, 2010. Marissa Alexander, 34, a black mother of three, fired a warning shot at her husband on Aug. 3, 2010. George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic volunteer neighborhood watchman, shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on Feb. 21, 2012. Michael Dunn, a white male, shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis on Nov. 23, 2012.

These four cases serve as flashpoints for examining Stand Your Ground legislation, and, more specifically, how media are covering these cases.

In 2005, Florida became the first of 22 states to enact a Stand Your Ground law, an extension of the “castle doctrine.” The law states that deadly force is justifiable when an individual believes he or she’s in danger. Initially, this justifiable force was reserved for private property, but the law extended the “castle” to include public spaces, like sidewalks.

Mother Jones, a liberal magazine, published a study that finds most Stand Your Ground laws have been adopted in the Southern and Midwestern States. Mother Jones attributes the rise of Stand Your Ground laws to the first election of President Barack Obama.

Dr. Sabrina Strings, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California-Berkeley, agrees. In an article for Truthout, Strings writes that “the discourse among politicians in many of these states, like Florida and Texas, was that Obama’s election would lead to explosive growth of “entitlements” (a curious linguistic inversion) for the poor and elderly. Ultimately, the fear that the various institutions of the government simply could not or would not effectively protect the (imagined potential) white victims and their property was an impetus behind the adoption of these new laws.”

Liberal publications and writers contextualized Stand Your Ground legislation as a political and a racial issue, making the media coverage of the Giles, Alexander, Zimmerman and Dunn cases particularly worthy of mining.

George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn

Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis shared much in common. Both were 17-year-old Floridians who were unarmed when they were killed. Both of their shooters were indicted and tried for killing them. Both of their killers were acquitted on their actual murders. Lastly, both of their deaths received massive media coverage.

When Zimmerman shot and killed Martin on Feb. 21, 2012, he invoked Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in his defense. The Sanford, Fla. police did not detain or charge Zimmerman with Martin’s death until swarming media pressure forced action, according to three researchers at the MIT Center for Civic Media.

Multiple media outlets devoted entire sections of newspapers and websites to Martin’s shooting and Zimmerman’s case. ABC’s central Florida affiliate, WFTV 9, Fox’s Orlando affiliate Fox 35, CBS News, the Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times and others began covering the incident since it happened more than two years ago.

In their study titled “The Battle for ‘Trayvon Martin’: Mapping a Media Controversy Online and Offline,” researchers Erhardt Graeff, Matt Stempeck and Ethan Zuckerman trace the Martin case through five specific phases. The second phase of media coverage in the Zimmerman case was sponsored by “race-based media” and activist outlets, including Global Grind, Color of Change and the Black Youth Project.

The third phase was a reaction from the political left. The researchers note that conservative news outlets suddenly were “putting Martin on trial.” On March 25, 2012, Dan Linehan, lead blogger at conservative site Wagist, referred to Martin as a drug dealer. According to Graeff, Stempeck and Zuckerman, “this reframing of Trayvon as dangerous, not innocent, was then amplified by a number of right wing blogs.”

Mainstream news outlets followed Wagist, leading to the Miami Herald publishing a story on Martin’s school records, which included a suspension for carrying a bag of marijuana.

In shifting the focus from Zimmerman to Martin, media reframed the narrative. The same trend is seen in coverage of Dunn’s case. Media’s coverage of Davis’ shooting and Dunn’s trial echoes that of Martin’s killing as Davis also was subjected to being examined as the catalyst for his own death.

According to court records, when Dunn approached Davis and three of his friends, they were listening to rap music in a car. In his testimony at his trial, Dunn claimed that he asked Davis to turn down the music, and felt threatened when Davis refused.

“My eardrums were vibrating,” Dunn said when asked about the music during trial. “I mean, this was ridiculously loud music.”

News outlets such ABC’s Good Morning America, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, Fox News, CNN and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution referred to the Dunn trial as the “loud music trial.”

The editorial decision to focus on the music Davis and his friends were listening to instead of Dunn’s decision to shoot him “trivialized the case,” according to Jedd Legum, the editor-in-chief of the Center for American Progress’ ThinkProgress blog. Cultural critic Alyssa Rosenberg, previously of ThinkProgress, agreed.

In a blog post dated Feb. 19, Rosenberg wrote, “The fact that Jordan Davis and his friends were listening to hip-hop, specifically to Lil Reese’s ‘Beef,’ seems to have predisposed Dunn to look at the boys in the car as dangerous in a way he might not have had they happened to be bumping country, or dance music, or the Rolling Stones.”

Jurors in the Dunn trial affirmed Legum’s claim. In an interview with ABC News, a juror, identified only as Valerie, said she believed Dunn was guilty of murder because he conflated musical preference with violent tendencies.

When asked about Dunn’s characterization of hip-hop music as “thug” music, Valerie replied, “That was a big deal for me, because he testified he wouldn’t say or use the words ‘thug,’ but he said he would use the words ‘rap crap.’ However, in his interview, he did say ‘thug’ a few times.”

White victimhood is a common thread between the Dunn and Zimmerman trials as well, according to NBC’s theGrio. Writer John Nolte amplified theGrio’s claim in a blog post for Breitbart.com, a conservative web site.

“As you will see below, by hook and crook, the mainstream media did everything in its still-potent power to not only push for the prosecution of Mr. Zimmerman (the police originally chose not to charge him) but also to gin up racial tensions where none needed to exist,” Nolte wrote.

Other ideological outlets were extreme in their coverage as well. Doug Spero, an op-ed columnist for the Christian Science Monitor, reported that Fox News aired Zimmerman interviews while MSNBC averaged six hours of coverage of the case per night, even after Zimmerman was acquitted.

Using the deaths of Martin and Davis as ideological rallying cries can lead to a failure to highlight important issues, such as  the role of intimate-partner violence in the Marissa Alexander case.

Marissa Alexander

Court documents state that on Aug. 3, 2010, Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot into the ceiling of her Jacksonville, Fla., home during an argument with her husband, Rico Gray.

Gray, who was 36 at the time of the incident, told digital news site Politic365 that “Marissa is not portraying herself as she is.”

He added, “I was begging for my life while my kids were holding on to my side, the gun was pointed at me.”

Alexander, then 31, was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault. Alexander attempted to enact Stand Your Ground as a defense, but the judge dismissed it, citing that her decision to leave the home and then return with a weapon didn’t show justifiable fear for her life.

Additionally, both Gray and Alexander had been arrested for domestic battery against each other before this incident, according to Jacksonville.com.

In an unrelated 2010 hearing, Gray said, “I got five baby mamas and I put my hand on every last one of them except one. The way I was with women, they was like they had to walk on eggshells around me. You know, they never knew what I was thinking … or what I might do … hit them, push them.”

As with the Davis and the Martin killings, there was a clear split in the national news media’s coverage of Alexander’s case.

Traditional outlets such as the Associated Press, CBS News and ABC News reported the case without departing from the facts.

In juxtaposition, digital-first outlets with progressive leanings, such as Gawker, Slate and BuzzFeed, questioned whether the justice system served or harmed Alexander – and if her case was a complete reversal of what happened in the Zimmerman trial.

In an article dated April 23, 2012, Connor Adams Sheets, a reporter at the International Business Times, compared the Zimmerman and Alexander cases. In the concluding paragraph, Sheets wrote that the Florida justice system’s treatment of the Alexander and Zimmerman cases proved that Stand Your Ground statutes are “unevenly-applied.”

Sheets’ statement was echoed in other articles at the Center for American Progress’ blog ThinkProgress and MSNBC.com among others.

However, most mainstream and digital publications overlooked the impact of intimate-partner violence on women of color, particularly black women, and how this factors into the Alexander case.

The Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that researches gun violence, found black women are disproportionately slain by their male partners. The Violence Policy Center concluded that 2.61 per 100,000 black female victims are killed in single-offender incidents, and that 94 percent of black women are killed by someone they’re familiar with.

Few news outlets examined intimate partner violence. MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris Perry” show devoted two segments to the role of intimate-partner violence in Alexander’s case. Irin Carmon, a reporter at MSNBC.com, detailed how Stand Your Ground, politics and intimate-partner violence are related.

In an article published March 20 of this year, Carmon used data from the Urban Institute, a nonprofit organization that collects data on America’s social issues, to prove that women can’t stand their ground if their target is male.

The Urban Institute found that just 5.7 percent of black women who kill black men are found to be justified, while 13.5 percent of white women who killed black men are found to be justified.

The Tampa Bay Times conducted similar research and found that Stand Your Ground was enacted in 14 Florida cases involving a female killer. Of those 14 cases, eight were found to be justified. Carmon noted that of those six cases that were tried, several of the women were victims of rape or physical abuse – and in most of the cases, the victim was a white male.

The lack of national reporting on intimate-partner violence as it relates to Alexander and Stand Your Ground is a critical oversight that is only reinforced when both the victim and the shooter are black males, as in the case of Michael Giles.

Michael Giles

Giles was stationed in Tampa, Fla., as an active-duty member of the Air Force. He was at a Tallahassee nightclub with friends when an argument escalated into a fight between 30 to 40 men, according to theGrio. Giles was not involved in the fight, but went to his vehicle to retrieve his gun.

He alleged that he was attacked, punched and knocked to the ground. Giles pulled his weapon out of his pants and fired at his attacker. In total, three men were wounded. Giles was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.

Like Alexander, Giles attempted to evoke Stand Your Ground, but also was denied. In August 2011, Giles was charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

No mainstream news outlet covered Giles’ case, and overall print and broadcast coverage is scarce. Niche publications and civil rights organizations have rallied for Giles. NBC’s theGrio, UPTOWN Magazine, PolicyMic, News One, VICE and the New York Amsterdam News have all published articles about the Giles case.

Most publications mirrored PolicyMic’s coverage. In an article dated Dec. 27 of last year, PolicyMic writer Rachel Kleinman asked, “Why did Giles lose his case?”

The other news outlets that covered Giles’ case asked similar questions. NBC’s theGrio interviewed Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Florida democrat, about the Giles’ case.

Bullard pointed to Florida Gov. Rick Scott as an impedance to justice, as it relates to Stand Your Ground cases that involve black shooters.

“His lack of intervention on behalf of Marissa Alexander and lack of compassion for the killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have not gone unnoticed by Black Floridians – and all Floridians,” Bullard said.

“So it comes as no surprise that he has been noticeably absent in the case of Michael Giles. Nonetheless I will continue pressing his office and others to take notice of cases like Mr. Giles, Ms. Alexander and others.”

The same statement can be extended to the overall media, which has failed to cover Giles case as heavily as the deaths of Zimmerman and Dunn.

In his closing arguments, Giles’ defense attorney, Don Pumphrey, again used the terminology of Stand Your Ground.

“He doesn’t have to think he’s going to get killed, even though people looking in from the outside thought someone could get killed,” Pumphrey said. “If the defendant was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, where he had a right to stand, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.”

So what went wrong?

Some media outlets have attributed the disproportionate (and sometimes unfair) coverage of the Zimmerman and Dunn trials to a need to protect white-identified males.

In her research, Dr. Strings, connects Stand Your Ground to law professor Cheryl Harris’ article, “Whiteness as Property.”

As Strings explained, “Through an historical analysis of legislation that has been enacted over the past 200 years, Professor Harris demonstrated how the law has protected the rights of white citizens. This effectively made whiteness itself a right to be defended. The law has, moreover, ‘legitimized benefits that accrued to citizens just because they’re white.”

Given this analysis, String concluded that Stand Your Ground is similar to lynching, as it serves as a way to “safeguard whiteness against all presumed threats.”

Critical analyses of race as it relates to Stand Your Ground haven’t been prevalent in national news outlets, but smaller Florida papers have tackled the issue.

The Panama City News Herald commissioned research on Stand Your Ground statistics based on the race of the shooter and the victim. Researchers found that 44 African-Americans have used the Stand Your Ground defense in Florida. Twenty-four of those defendants have been successful, while 11 of the 44 were found guilty.

John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, connects these statistics to the perceived lack of victimhood available to black men.

“In any situation where a black male is perceived as being the aggressor, you are much more likely to have the homicide considered justifiable,” Roman said to MSNBC.com. “If they’re involved in a homicide, the finding is likely going to go against them.”

These Stand Your Ground cases in Florida are helping reinforce the idea that American post-racialism is a fallacy. These four separate Stand Your Ground cases reveal that news coverage shifts when the shooter is a person of color, or a woman. Though this feeds partisan posturing, it also leads to the under-reporting or exclusion of systemic social issues, such as intimate-partner violence. It also leaves Alexander, Davis, Giles, and Martin without justice.


Media get on right side of history with gay NFL player coverage

Fewer than 24 hours after University of Missouri football player Michael Sam officially announced he was gay, Sports Illustrated placed a story online using unidentified sources saying this would hurt his chances to be drafted in the National Football League.

And fewer than 24 hours after that report came a barrage of media reports and opinions unequivocally supporting Sam.

While the Sam furor slowed down, the question of homosexuality spends more than its fair share of time in the media spotlight. The Sam story was just weeks old when the state of Arizona tried to pass a law that allowed people to refuse service to gays because it interfered with their religion. Again, media were quick to take a stand against this law.

Most numbers tracking support of gay marriage put the percentages somewhere between 53 percent and 59 percent in favor of gay marriage, with a March 2014 Washington Post poll putting the number at 59 percent favoring gay-marriage rights. That’s still more than 40 percent of people opposing gay marriage, yet a quick and statistically unreliable Google search shows media support at a much higher rate (even Bill O’Reilly came out in favor of gay marriage).

Is this an example of a liberal media? Is this an example of a godless media? Or is this an example of media coming down in favor of civil rights?

Some of the coverage – and the consistent stance of media – comes from a natural fear of being vilified in the Twitterverse for making an uneducated or homophobic statement in print. In May 2013, NBA player Jason Collins came out. Most reactions were positive, though one writer, from a small Illinois daily, wrote a homophobic, ill-conceived article about Collins. Jim Romenesko picked up the article on his website within a day, and soon people were piling on the writer from across the United States.

It was an example of how anything a person can do something stupid enough in print to make people pay attention. So, maybe some writers were afraid to let their homophobic sentiments make a public appearance in Sam’s case, knowing the ramifications of such statements. Call it a spiral of silence or a bandwagon effect, but some reporters might shy away from making negative statements about Sam or gay marriage. Most appear to be ready to make the statement that a gay man on an NFL squad, or a gay married couple living next door, isn’t going to harm anybody.

One man, Dallas sports anchor Dale Hansen of WFAA (an ABC affiliate) gave the best response to the Sam story. Hansen mentioned the Sports Illustrated story that said some men would be “uncomfortable” playing on the same team with an openly gay player, and then said, “You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs and that’s perfectly OK, you kill people while driving drunk, that guy’s welcome.” Hansen followed with a list of current NFL player transgressions, including rape, attempted murder, prostitution, and more, and followed that with: “But if you love another man –, well, now you’ve gone too far.”

Hansen framed the story perfectly. Why worry about a person’s sexual preferences when we have so many other things that are wrong with the NFL and college sports? And he framed the story in a powerful way, placing love, gay or straight, on one level, and comparing that to a completely different level, the true issues that face a league such as the NFL. In addition, he looked at the issue and wondered why the NFL wasn’t concerned with real problems, because Sam certainly doesn’t qualify as a problem.

In fact, the same University of Missouri football players who were praised for being so accepting of Sam were mentioned in a story by ESPN about the possible rape of Sasha Menu Courey, a Missouri swimmer who claimed to have been raped in 2011. Her story was ignored by Missouri officials. She later left the school and committed suicide. Media should have paid more attention to this story than Sam but rape stories are too common.

The first openly gay NFL football player, now that’s news. Maybe it should be. Media chronicle changes in society. Accepting that an openly gay man may be playing in the NFL marks a change in our cultural attitude. That change is the Hansen captured so well in his editorial. Sam’s story is important because of how people reacted. Sure, there was the Sports Illustrated side, saying that the league wasn’t ready for change. But there also was the other side that said that it didn’t matter if the NFL was ready for change; society has already changed, and the league should catch up.

Sam is a story. Gay marriage is a story. Our culture is changing. Maybe the media noticed and are trying to be more accepting.

Jack Burkman, a lobbyist in Washington, promised to talk of Congress into passing a bill that would make it illegal to have a gay man in an NFL locker room. He promptly lost a number of clients, including conservative lawmakers.

Politicians have been inundated with a phrase from those who support legalizing gay marriage. They’re told to “get on the right side of history.” The media have done that with the Sam story, and with the Arizona religious freedom bill. This isn’t about a liberal media, or even a fear of saying the wrong thing. Media, on the whole, have decided to get on the right side of history on this one.

Media coverage of Ukraine’s crisis: War for people’s minds

It now is evident that Ukraine has been noted on the world’s map by a vast majority of Americans. From “somewhere near Russia,” it has moved to “between Russia and the European Union” – and this awareness happened thanks to coverage in all renowned national and local media in the United States and beyond. Since December, Ukraine’s political crisis has shown how some media play with information and how journalism is dependent on geopolitics.

Journalists’ work

Being a Ukrainian native, I was monitoring media from different parts of the world in terms of how they have covered the Ukrainian crisis, paying special attention to those countries involved in resolving the issue: the United States, Europe, Russia and Ukraine itself. Ukraine became a newsmaker ever since unrest grew at Euro-maidan (Kiev’s main square) from what started as peaceful protests against delaying the EU-Ukraine- associated membership deal by pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in November. The unrest converted evolved into a bloody anti-government conflict, with more than 100 killed, thousands injured and pre-war relations between Ukraine and Russia (de facto Russian military aggression) over the Crimean peninsula annexation.

From December to February, Kiev was dangerous place for journalists to work. The first journalist to suffer injuries was Tetiana Chornovol, who worked for the anti-government online publication Ukrainska Pravda. She was beaten by unknown attackers in late December. In January, tension and street violence rose. It seemed that attacks by special police forces were aimed against the least protected and most vulnerable people because of their work conditions: journalists and paramedic volunteers. Ukrainian Espreso.tv provided videos, where police and snipers’ weapons purposely targeted the word “press” and red crosses on protective waistcoats. Forty-six journalists were reported injured, and two dead, after clashes in Kiev.

The journalists’ most recent work has become entangled in controversy and obstacles as the Crimean conflict escalates. A Ukrainian journalist from the weekly magazine Ukrainsky Tuzhden and a freelance photographer were kidnapped and tortured in Crimea. A group of journalists from Ukraine’s national TV network 1+1 was deported from Russia after shooting video in North Ossetia, a territory annexed by Russia from Georgia in 2008. A similar story happened with journalists of the channel Ukraine in the unacknowledged republic of Abkhazia, which has been controlled by Russia since 1993. Journalists still are doing their jobs, but now very differently.

U.S. coverage and the European angle

Among the first media that started covering Ukrainian events were the U.S.newspapers the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and the broadcast network CNN. Attempts to localize news and give pointed opinions prevailed over “pure” informing. As the conflict spread beyond the Euromaidan protests to Ukraine as a whole, with a major hot spot in Crimea, the United States stepped in as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. American media exploded with all kinds of stories, ranging from very supportive and positive toward Ukraine to negative ones as well. The New York Times’ leading opinion pieces, as well as CNN’’s news and commentaries (including Anderson Cooper’s first-hand reporting from Ukraine), mostly expressed neutral and supportive positions. For example, the New York Times ran an opinion column from Nicholas Kristof in which he deliberately explained why the “villains” are the Russian troops in Crimea. The Washington Post published Condoleezza Rice’s opinion story urging a stronger U.S. position in this conflict. Opinion pieces challenging U.S. involvement and support of Ukraine appeared in the Los Angeles Times, including those by Paul Whitefield, who contrasted American internal financial needs with providing monetary support to Ukraine.

European media, not surprisingly, showed more in-depth coverage on Ukraine’s crisis, as geographical closeness is still is a crucial factor for world media to involve their foreign reporters into first-hand coverage. The BBC created a special section on its web-site, with live updating on events via Twitter, Facebook, other media, and its own correspondents. The same kind of attitude to covering Ukrainian events was expressed by the Guardian in Britain and Germany’s Douche Welle. In an edition for non-stop Ukrainian coverage Poland’s most influential newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, had special issues published in the Ukrainian language, showing its support in that way.

Despite the different angles in coverage, a general message sent by Western media is that Ukraine is divided within the framework of Ukrainian versus Russian languages and ethnic issues. In fact, this generalization was a case in pre-revolutionary Ukraine. Events from recent months have dramatically influenced people’s views and self-identifications. Newscasts and analytical articles on the nation’s uniting during the conflict are missing in Western coverage, while it is widely shown by Ukraine’s media. This notion of national division has been played for centuries by politicians and historians. Now it is being widely exaggerated by the Russian government to justify that country’s intervention into Ukraine’s sovereignty in Crimea.

Russian propaganda

The portrayal of Ukraine in Russian media cannot be called anything else than propaganda. The majority of Russian television networks (with the only possible exception being Dozhd’ [Rain], which is an opposition TV channel) shows an alternative reality to the coverage from the rest of the world.

The recent facts of pro-government propaganda and press freedom persecution in Russia include a series of resignations from well-known media. The first occurred when Russia Today anchor Liz Wahl quit her job on-air because of unfair coverage of the Ukrainian crisis. A week later, 39 staff members including 32 journalists – and all of the photo editing staff – resigned from Lenta.ru, the oldest liberal online newspaper in Russia. The staffers quit in a show of support for chief editor Galina Timchenko, who was fired from the paper’s independent position and replaced by a pro-Kremlin editor.

Misleading and unfair reporting prevail throughout Russian media, regardless of whether the platform is print, broadcasting or online. Until recently, Russian media on the Internet stayed the least controlled by the government and the most open to publishing diverse opinions. But now it also is being repressed by the government: oppositional web-sites are banned, as well as blogs and live- journal accounts of prominent oppositional leaders Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov, the website of radio station Echo of Moscow and more.

Since March 1, when thousands of unidentified troops (in uniforms that resemble those of Russian troops) appeared in Crimea, Russian TV channel Russia 24 reported that thousands of refugees from Ukraine were on the Russia-Ukraine border. In fact, however, they provided archival video that showed cars lined up at a Polish-Ukrainian custom check-point. Officially, just 89 Ukrainians have asked for asylum in Russia during the first two weeks of March. Later, other television networks, while reporting devastating clashes between pro-Russian forces and Ukrainians in Simferopol, used archival video from Kiev’s February protests instead.

The most recent evidence of Russia’s goals to invade and monopolize Ukraine’s informational space includes the military capture of Crimean Tatar’s TV channel ATR, dumping Ukrainian channels from cable networks and replacing them with Russian ones, and the closing of Ukrainian radio stations in Crimea. All this happened at the same time as preparations were made for the illegal referendum about the annexation of Crimea by Russia. While officials in Moscow refuse to take responsibility for these actions their origin are more or less obvious.

Inside view from Ukraine

Staying fair, objective and transparent has been the hardest task for the Ukrainian media. In this situation, when media conglomerates comprising major television networks and publishing houses are controlled by billionaires that were close to Yanukovych’s administration, obeying the duty of objective journalism is hardly achievable. For instance, during the riots in Kiev’s, the reality of Yanukovych’s official position was presented by the TV channel Inter (which is controlled by pro-Kremlin oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who recently was imprisoned in Austria as a result of Interpol and FBI’s investigations). Nevertheless, the majority of national media remained fairly balanced in covering the events. Moreover, the newest positive processes in Ukrainian journalism occurred.

First, almost immediately after the beginning of the clashes at Euro-maidan, the special television online channels Espresso.tv and UkrStream started streaming around the clock from the epicenter of the events. This is a new phenomenon for Ukrainian television, and most of the Ukrainian networks borrowed and retransmitted videos from these channels to cover the events in Kiev.

Second, after 20 years of useless discussions and lost attempts to create public media, self-organized public service broadcasting online channel, Hromadske.tv, was created. Indeed, the boundary conditions of the new revolution forced journalists into this unprecedented step in Ukraine’s history. Prominent journalists from mainstream Ukrainian print, broadcast and online media share their free time after their full-time work assignments to contribute to this public service initiative. So far, it works only in a form of online streaming from one self-maintained studio, combining studio interviews and analytics with onsite web-cams streaming by journalists, and Skype interviews/video conferences. Perhaps, the most- viewed streams were those from ousted President Yanukovych’s residency Mezhihir’ya, where journalists were picturing the royal-like wealth of its former owner. Besides the ethical nuances of this reporting (along with the fact that the majority of national, and some international, media did stories on the treasures of corrupted officials by invading their outcast private residencies), it generated huge social interest. The special public website YanukovychLeaks was created by journalists and civil activists for investigating the corrupt schemes of the former president and his government.

The booming popularity of this long-awaited initiative led to the recent development where Hromandske.tv started broadcasting as a joint project of the television channel First, which is the oldest national TV network (it has a penetration rate of 95 percent of Ukraine’s territory and is the “mouthpiece” of the Ukrainian government). This example of cooperation has been followed by another project of Ukrainian television that aim to unify Ukrainian society.

Social media: So who controls the people’s minds?

The Ukrainian revolution happened with great help from (or because of) social media. Social media are widely used as informational sources now, since it already has been accepted practice for major media players across the globe to disseminate news through them. But person-to-person interaction made Facebook and Twitter, along with Ukrainian and Russian local social media (Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki) key platforms for negotiating the public gatherings at Euro-maidan protests in November. They were used for further coordination of protests.

Dozens of pages that supported and confronted the protests, and that followed the Ukraine-Russia conflict, were created in social media in recent months. Politicians and public figures post comments and tweet about events online. YouTube also is a main platform for the newest streaming videos and the output of public television channels, which shortly after appearing online become widely known in Ukraine. Such use of social media for the needs of mobilizing and influencing people cannot have stayed unnoticed by those interested in information manipulation. The signs of informational war have already been seen in Ukraine, as constant denial-of-service attacks on some of Ukraine’s most-viewed news sites (such as Channel 5, Hromadske.tv, and Ukrainska Pravda) and their YouTube channels are reported. Traditional media are not the main players in this war any more. One should be very picky in choosing sources of information to get the sense of the truth. This might be one of the most obvious inferences about role of Ukraine’s crisis in today’s media world.


Hoping a new media sensitivity might emerge from the Newtown tragedy

Editor’s note: This is a preview of a story that appears in the winter 2014 print edition of Gateway Journalism Review.

Soon after tragedy struck a sleepy New England town more than one year ago, residents of Newtown, Ct., vowed the place they called home would be an epicenter for change. There needed to be changes in gun laws, some cried out. Others advocated for a national movement to increase school security. A need for better mental health counseling became a topic of conversation in homes and coffee shops among the town’s 26,000 residents.

More subtle and in the undertones, there also were pleas for Newtown to be the epicenter of change in how stories of mass shootings and grief are covered.

Just as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has generated discussion about gun laws and school safety, how the tragedy was covered should also be a topic of discussion and review among media outlets, journalism organizations and in academia. There are so many lessons to learn in how journalists can still do their job while maintaining decency, credibility and sensitivity, but the year following the tragedy has shown there is little interest in the topic. So while there should be a Newtown effect in journalism, that sadly has not been the case.

There were no mea culpas about the inaccurate reporting that occurred as the Sandy Hook story was unfolding. It was reported the shooter was a parent of a kindergarten student. He was not. It was reported the killer’s mother was a teacher at the school. She was not. The killer was misidentified. It was reported the killer once attended the school, but lived in New Jersey with his father. Only one part of that report was correct. Those are just a few of the inaccuracies reported as fact. Connecticut State Police did not have an official press conference for nearly six hours after the shooting, so reporters on the scene were fed information from their collective newsrooms and social media. Without confirmation, those tidbits were presented as gospel until the newest tidbit of information was presented. No one apologized for the misinformation.

A similar scenario was repeated five months later at the Boston Marathon bombing. The need for speed outweighed the importance of accuracy. Clearly, nothing was learned from Newtown.

Analysis: Blagojevich’s conviction fits pattern of white-collar retrials

The conviction of former Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich on 17 federal criminal counts on Monday is not surprising in light of the high percentage of convictions that federal prosecutors win in retrials of white-collar crimes after they have a chance t

o streamline complicated cases to appeal to juries.

A jury found Blagojevich guilty of 17 counts of wire fraud, attempted extortion, bribery, extortion conspiracy and bribery conspiracy. He was acquitted on one bribery charge, and the jury deadlocked on two counts of attempted extortion.

“Typically when you have a hung jury and the case gets retried it is better for the prosecution than the defense; and this proves it again,” said Peter A. Joy, vice dean at Washington University Law School.

Joy doubted that Blagojevich hurt himself by taking the stand in the second trial after remaining silent in the first.

“Since he was found guilty this time, a lot of people will reason backward and conclude the defense made a mistake putting Blagojevich on the stand,” Joy said. “I honestly think that the defense had to put him on the stand, the way the prosecution had decided to trim down their case. I thought it helped him rather than hurt him.”

Catherine Hanaway, former U.S. attorney in St. Louis, said, “The prosecution did precisely what it needed to do here — narrow its case, focus its efforts and stick with it. They were not distracted by nor did they get pulled into the media circus that was Blago.”

Hanaway added, in a email: “Routing out public corruption is one of the most difficult and easily one of the most important jobs of any prosecutor. Too often the public is left with the impression that politicians are generally corrupt. In fact, the overwhelming majority, in both parties, are ethical public servants. However, when they go bad, they tend to go really bad in ways that jeopardize the fabric of our form of government. Our government only works if people believe their vote matters. The convicted felon, who was the governor of Illinois, sought to rip from end-to-end our system of government, literally stealing from millions of voters their right to have a senator appointed who represented their interests, not the highest bidder.”

Mike Lawrence, retired director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said the conviction won’t erase the damage that Blagojevich did as governor.

“Prosecutors showed they had drawn lessons from the first trial,” he wrote in an email. “Their presentation was more focused, less complicated and better mapped for jury consumption. My sense is this jury was more analytical and disciplined. But it’s important to note that Blagojevich would have been convicted on several counts by the first jury except for one or two holdouts. He’s headed for years in prison, but the state will suffer from his corrupt, fiscally reckless, managerially chaotic reign for decades to come.”

There had been some criticism that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald had been too zealous in his pursuit of Blagojevich. But Joy disagreed. “Whenever a prosecutor brings a case and gets a hung jury, he has to ask himself if this is something worth going after. Given the nature of the charges and what Blagojech did, most prosecutors would say it was worth it.

“The prosecution took to heart what most people thought about the first trial and changed. I think the prosecutors can take this as a vindication of their approach. When the deliberations were going on for longer than expected, there was some criticism of the prosecution. But there must have been some core of the case the jurors were agreed upon. Given the number of counts they were unanimous on it is unlikely a situation where they were troubled.”

One of Joy’s colleagues at Washingon University Law School, Kathleen Brickey, conducted a study of eight high-profile, white-collar cases that resulted in mistrials over the past decade and found that convictions occurred in almost all of the retrials. She studied cases such as Enron, Tyco and Qwest.

“Prosecutors have enjoyed considerable success after mistrials,” she concluded. Two of the eight defendants pled guilty to avoid the perils of a new trial. Three of the four retrials ended in conviction of all defendants. None of the eight defendants won an acquittal.

Brickey found that some of the cases had suffered from confusing complexity during the first trials. Prosecutors were more successful in second trials after simplifying their cases. Fitizgerald eliminated Blagojevich’s brother from the case and trimmed the original 24-count indictment down to 20 counts.

Many of the 17 counts on which Blagovich was convicted carry sentences of up to 20 years. Blagojevich still faces up to five years in prison for the one conviction from his first trial for lying to the FBI. Joy said it was hard to predict how much time Blagojevich will serve in prison. It will partly depend on whether the judge imposes sentences that run concurrently or consecutively, he said.

The State of Journalism

Newspaper and media experts have spent the last couple of decades like navel-gazing philosophers – analyzing, explaining, charting and graphing the decline of old-fashioned journalism. They have documented the primary culprits for what ails traditional journalism such as newspapers and broadcast news: changing audience reading and viewing habits, as well as consumers plugging into the Internet and other high-tech new media to obtain information and to communicate. These phenomena led to the slow collapse of the advertising-supported model of traditional journalism as ad dollars shifted to the Internet and other platforms, taking circulation with them. The latest numbers: daily newspaper circulation declined 8.7 percent in the six months ending March 31 while Sunday circulation was down 6.5 percent.

But another factor is in play, one that can be attributed to the basic supply-and-demand functions college students learn in introductory economics. Owners and managers of traditional media should take a hard look at their “product,” as news has come to be called, to discern if it is supplying not only what the consumers demand, but what they need. I contend that beyond fulfilling the public’s lust for the banal – celebrity, sports and sensational crimes – it is not.

The immense popularity of the late Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which had a first printing of just 4,000 copies in 1980 but has sold nearly 2 million since then, provides a clue for traditional media owners.  The appeal of Zinn’s tome was not so much in the accuracy of his rendition of history, which some critics have questioned. Rather, it was in the perspective: history viewed from the bottom up, through the experiences of the victimized minorities, women and laborers who felt the effects of  rules and events brought about by history officialdom.

“To describe it as a revisionist account is to risk understatement,” wrote Michael Powell of the book in Zinn’s January 27, 2010 New York Times obituary. “A conventional historical account held no allure; he concentrated on what he saw as the genocidal depredations of Christopher Columbus, the blood lust of Theodore Roosevelt and the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln. He also shined an insistent light on the revolutionary struggles of impoverished farmers, feminists, laborers and resisters of slavery and war.”

A similar “light” – or demand – exists for news, if only the providers of traditional reportage would become a bit less traditional and alter their content – as radio, and then television, forced them to do in the previous century when they shifted focus from immediacy to concentrate on context, background and explanation. Now, facing a challenge from the Internet,  newspaper providers need to look at their content’s relevance anew, and redefine how they intend to serve their audience.

We still get reportings of illegal government wiretapping of citizens’ cell phones, of torture of federal prisoners during terrorist-related  interrogation, of corporate foul-ups such as massive oil spills or dangerous automobiles. Still, the media have largely abandoned the ballyhooed watchdog role in favor of what  media analysts Clarice N. Olien, George A. Donohue and Phillip J. Tichenor have identified as a guard dog role on behalf of “groups having the power and influence to create and command their own security systems.”

The press for the most part engages in – indeed, encourages – a symbiotic relationship with government and business in a routinized method of reporting that, in the name of credibility, objectivity and balance, relies heavily on official sources and official agendas. More and more, reporting agendas are set not by the public but by government officials and policy makers through press conferences, photo-ops, speeches and scheduled meetings – all designed to structure the news and to define its importance, scope and range in the interests of the news-makers and policy-setters. And more and more the media accept these agendas, which, more accurately, are topical boundaries. And this is where much of the major problem of today’s press lies.

As former Washington Post assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian argued in his book The Media Monopoly, agenda-setting – “deciding which news to pursue in depth and which to drop quickly” – is a normal and necessary part of newsgathering. But it also “is the most important single step in journalism.”

In a democracy, media and news organizations are the primary source of information on which citizens and policymakers rely to keep abreast of national and international economic, political and social events that affect each of them. So the selection of stories offered to the public, and how those stories are reported and presented, is important.  

During last year’s G-20 summit in Pittsburgh – the first time such a gathering had been held in a non-capital city – I analyzed summit coverage by the local and national press to ascertain how the agendas of the media compared to the official agendas of the participating governments and to those of the thousands of activists and protesters who marched, demonstrated and rioted during the summit. I also tracked what sort of sources the newspapers used. Source selection plays a key role in story credibility. Media scholars have demonstrated that editors and reporters most often call on official sources, such as government officials and insiders, not only for such practical reasons as their availability but because of the belief they have something important to say and what they say is factual. But in this zeal for credibility, the press has lost its connection to those outside of officialdom it is supposed to represent – its audience.

My analysis of the coverage by the three national newspapers of the Pittsburgh summit – The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today – clearly  documented that official sources dominated newspaper coverage of summit events, from the doings of government officials behind closed doors to the cultural and social functions and the staged marches and protests on the streets. Designated spokespeople of agencies and organizations, including those representing protest or dissent groups; government representatives; and law enforcement officials accounted for 71 percent of all sources of the summit coverage in the three national newspapers.  Non-official sources – folks on the street, business employees, neighborhood residents – comprised 24 percent. The remainder of the sources – newspaper columnists primarily, using themselves or each other as sources – made up the other 5 percent.

But here is the important percentage. Dissent sources – whether official protest group spokespeople or demonstrators interviewed at random during the numerous marches and occasional unplanned flare-ups that led to more than 200 arrests – accounted  for only 12 percent of the newspapers’ sources. And most of these sources’ comments came during coverage of marches, protest activities or riots – stories that were infrequent, comprising only 13 percent of all three newspapers’ stories on the summit, stories that were buried inside and that were based primarily on information obtained from government and police officials.

This compared to 53 percent on economic subjects – the official agenda of the summit – of the three national newspapers’ total stories on the summit. The remaining categories were environmental and other subjects, editorials and commentary. The subjects of the latter category – opinion pieces by academic and policy experts and newspaper columnists – were primarily on economic subjects; so the newspapers’ agendas were strongly allied with the official agendas of the participating governments. This is not earth-shattering; it was an economic summit after all. But thousands of other folks showed up for this event with agendas that they, at least, viewed as equally important – clean air, pursuit of peace, a political system beholden to financial and corporate interests, and freedom of speech and assembly.

These findings do affirm what media critics have contended about the modern media for some time – that news, in the words of Olien, Donohue and Tichenor, “is primarily about those at or near the top of the power hierarchies and those low in the hierarchies who threaten the top … Media organizations and news gathering routines reinforce this power orientation, through selection of sources that are available, efficient, and authoritative.”

One other finding of interest in my analysis was the national newspapers’ treatment of a ruling in federal court during the summit that gave police free rein to arrest and intimidate protesters and spectators alike – a story covered by only one national  newspaper, the Times, in an inside brief. The ruling, handed down by U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster, came early in the week of the summit after police, without benefit of a warrant or show of probable cause, detained an out-of-state bus that had been converted to a kitchen to serve food during the protests. Members of the activist group Seeds of Peace were stopped for loitering while walking to a residence where they were guests, and the bus was pulled over and held for a couple of hours just 20 yards from its destination, awaiting a city inspection team after police had ordered it moved. The ruling also followed police interference with two groups that had been given legal permits to hold pre-summit marches.

The Times’ September 23 item on the judge’s decision reported he found no “‘irreparable harm’ by three separate police searches last weekend of members of the Seeds of Peace, a group that provides medical care and food to protest groups. Judge Lancaster also said he  would not stop the city from conducting further searches or detaining members of the group or of a larger group, the Three Rivers Climate Convergence, ‘particularly given the fact that the heads of state of 19 countries and the European Union will be in Pittsburgh this week.’”

The account omitted the most troubling aspect of the judge’s ruling, as reported by the local Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in which the judge concluded “we are not here to determine if constitutional violations have occurred.”

This omission is akin to the philosophical parable that questions whether a falling tree makes any noise if there is nobody in the forest to hear it. This judge’s setting aside of constitutional issues makes a silent tumbling tree of the First and Fourth Amendments so far as the national audience is concerned. The failure of the national press to question that incredible pronouncement goes beyond mere news judgment, to a matter of press responsibility. And it was more evidence of an unchallenging, if not downright cozy, relationship of the press to those it is supposed to cover in the tradition of an independent Fourth Estate.

As for the unofficial and dissident sources, they were left largely on their own, to Internet blogs and to the alternative press for more thorough, or balanced, reporting. Indeed, the coverage of Pittsburgh’s City Paper – a free weekly popular among the city’s cultural, college and younger crowd – was starkly different not only from the national press but also from the two Pittsburgh dailies in terms of framing and sourcing.

Its front-page color photos of mounted and helmeted gun-toting police, a gas-mask-wearing observer, and marching monks focused on the police-state regime the city had become during the summit and the national press largely ignored. This included vehicle traffic channeled away from downtown, protesters corralled and controlled with gas and loud audio devices, and the requirement for permits to march and gather in the streets. The story inside told of the protests and arrests from the viewpoint of those detained and those observing, using official sources for some information but also as counterpoint information contradicted by the primary sources of the reportage – those affected by and participating in the activities. The City Paper coverage offered a remarkably different take in terms of agenda and framing of the event than that of the daily – especially national – press.

It was almost Zinn-like.

And there is the rub. The readership that the traditional press needs to reach, the demand that it is failing to supply, is slipping away to alternative media that include weekly newspapers and Internet blogs. These are the forums where common citizens gather, discuss the agendas the governments and policy-makers set and big media reports. And this is occurring at a time when a vibrant and challenging daily press is vital – the nation is fighting two wars, it remains mired in economic recession. Folks are worried about their jobs, homes and retirements; about immigration policies on the southern border; about climate change that is affecting the future of the planet – all overseen by a government comprising factions at war with each other and reported by a media perceived as more in league with officialdom than with the citizens.

Newspapers and media companies seeking to broaden, or reclaim, their franchise  need to connect with, rather than disconnect from, the citizens who comprise the populist mood of the nation. Of course they must continue reporting the agendas and the routine information they cover through official channels; but they also need to expand the coverage to include stories of the people touched by the decisions and reportage. The reporters should take off their neckties and take to the streets.

They should go to public health clinics and wait in line along with the patients to report first-hand on the conditions and treatment doled out to citizens in those venues. They should emulate the method of Barbara Ehrenreich, take minimum-wage jobs and report on the working conditions and treatment of employees in the nation’s restaurants and department stores. They should rent an apartment in the ghetto and write about living conditions there.

This is the kind of reporting that the muckraking journalists did back in the early days of the twentieth century. They went into the meat-packing plants, into the insane asylums, behind the scenes of county and state government, during the populist movements of the Progressive era, to report on abuse, graft and fraud – before the wealthy moguls, the likes of Morgan and Rockefeller, bought out the muckraking magazines to, as Bagdikian suggested, shut off that reporting valve.

A similar phenomenon of wealth-controlled information is in place today. A small number of multi-company conglomerates own most of this nation’s print and broadcast media and thus control the gates of information. And the few remaining independent media voices rely on college-educated, middle-class reporters and correspondents who live and barbecue out in the suburbs to report on news agendas that have been narrowed to official government proclamations and events, and sports and celebrity news. The result, to echo the findings of the Kerner Commission’s 1968 investigation of press coverage of ghetto riots, is a perception by the reading and viewing public at large that media organizations are instruments of the predominant (white) power structure – a finding that remains valid today about a reporting structure that leaves a whole lot of citizens without a powerful media voice. The consequences of this nearly century-long shift in agendas and story framing away from the masses and to the power brokers all are negative: stepped up dissident and sometimes violent protest activity because loud voices can more easily command media and government attention; lopsided, unbalanced reporting on issues that need probing, contextual  and behind-the-scene story-telling; decreased credibility due, ironically, to reporting methods designed to ensure credibility; and, ultimately, a democracy that suffers because of a citizenry that has become disconnected from its elected officials and unelected guard dogs.

Steve Hallock, a former longtime newspaper writer and editor, is director of graduate studies for the School of Communication at Point Park University in Pittsburgh and is author most recently of “Reporters Who Made History: Great American Journalists on the Issues and Crises of the Late 20th Century.”