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Why Trayvon remains news

Elements such as uniqueness, party division keep us talking about case

Published: Saturday, April 7, 2012 5:00 a.m. CST

Maybe you’re getting tired of hearing about the Trayvon Martin case out of Florida — where a black teen was shot and killed by a maybe-white or maybe-Hispanic man on neighborhood patrol in a gated community. One of the questions I keep hearing is: Why is this news?

“Kids get shot every day in Chicago,” I hear. “Where’s the outrage? Why isn’t that news?”

Well, I don’t know if kids are shot every day in Chicago. I’ll agree there are a lot of unnecessary and tragic deaths of children in Chicago and across the country. Many of them are news at least in their own communities. Some, like the Casey Anthony case, also out of Florida, become national stories that can seem to drone on forever.

Where’s the outrage? That’s a different question than “why is this news.” News can spark an outrage, and outrage can become news. The news cannot create an outrage without people willing to be outraged. That would belike fire without oxygen.

One element of a news story is whether it is unique. There are many other factors that go into deciding what is news. Is it timely? Is it relevant to another story? Does it impact a lot of people? Is it horrendous or spectacular? Racially motivated crimes are often seen as crimes against humanity, which impact everyone.

I don’t know that the Trayvon Martin case was racially motivated, and I don’t think it started out as a hate crime story. I think the racial overtones or speculation evolved and speak more to the racial divide in our country than to the specifics of that case.

The case also seems to split us along party lines. Conservatives are quick to reserve judgment on the shooter, George Zimmerman. He’s innocent until proven guilty. They don’t seem as quick to consider whether Martin was innocent until proven guilty.

That’s an element that has fed this story. An indictment on Zimmerman may be seen as an indictment on handguns, the right to carry a weapon and the right to defend one’s self. Conservatives are hoping and praying that Zimmerman did the right thing.

Liberals, on the other hand, don’t see the existence of a “right thing” in this case. Even if Zimmerman had been attacked, he had already called police, who were minutes away. If he had not been carrying a gun, neither Zimmerman nor Martin would have died that day.

And if Zimmerman had been attacked by Martin, wasn’t Martin provoked? Zimmerman was told by the police dispatcher that he didn’t need to follow Martin, yet he followed him, anyway.

Maybe as a young, black man in America, Martin was getting tired of being viewed as a suspect even where there is no crime. Did he confront Zimmerman? Did he go for Zimmerman’s gun? If so, why was the gun in view? How did he know Zimmerman had a gun? And the big question is, why is there no apparent blood on Zimmerman in a video taken shortly after the shooting when he claimed to have sustained a broken nose and a head injury?

All of these questions must be answered through the judicial system. Getting back to our original questions: Why is this news? And, why the outrage?

Zimmerman is supposed to be a “good guy.” He reportedly was studying criminal law and was in charge of his neighborhood watch. Good guys are not supposed to shoot unarmed teens in America.

If Zimmerman had shot a known drug dealer in possession of drugs, weapons and/or large sums of cash, this would be a much different story. Even if he had successfully brought a knife to a gunfight, this would be a different story. But he brought a gun to a fistfight.

I don’t think this story would have taken flight if Zimmerman had been an actual police officer. It’s unfortunate, but police sometimes shoot unarmed, innocent people when they mistakenly believe the person to be a threat. We tend to be understanding of that. The police are at least trained to look for threatening behavior and sometimes must react under less-than-ideal circumstances. But Zimmerman is not a police officer, and no crime had been reported. Those are elements of a news story.

The outrage grew from that. I remember when the story first came out, I thought something seemed amiss. I wondered why people were not immediately outraged. But within a couple of days, people were asking questions and expressing dismay. That became the basis of more news stories, which became the basis of more outrage, which prompted more news coverage within the viral circle of the Internet and 24-hour news stations.

So, why is it still news? When I visited my local cigar shop last week, it was the topic of discussion for at least two days. When I had lunch in a restaurant today, the old men at the next table over were talking about it. I see mentions of it on Facebook.

That’s why it’s news.

It has caught our collective attention and found a place within the national dialogue. And that’s a good thing. The specifics of the case will get worked out in court whether for good or otherwise. The rest of us will continue to debate. Some of us will stand our ground whether we’re right or wrong, and some of us will be persuaded to change our positions. And the news drives that, so we can blame the news for giving us what we want and need. Sometimes, we need a little outrage.

©Copyright 2012 by David Porter who can be reached at david@ramblinman.us. This column, despite running in newspapers and on news websites, is not news. But you can blame me, anyway, if it makes you feel better.

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