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.
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.
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.