Black journalists from across the nation filled an auditorium in Kissimmee, Fl. on Saturday as they anticipated the arrival of Trayvon Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin.
The media professionals at the Gaylord Palms convention center received Fulton and Martin at this year’s 38th National Association of Black Journalists Convention, an annual gathering of the nation’s aspiring, young and veteran African-American news-makers.
The Martins have made nationwide appearances speaking out in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of their son.
Zimmerman’s defense team argued he shot and killed Trayvon Martin in self defense.
This past weekend, Fulton and Martin made their way less than an hour away from their home in Sanford to address an audience of reporters, many of whom have documented their lives for the last year-and-a-half for some of the nation’s largest media companies.
“When this happened, it was so unexpected as parents we didn’t know what to do,” Fulton said. “We took the negative and we turned it into a positive and the positive is that we’re going to help other families that go through senseless gun violence.”
Trayvon’s legacy must live on
The death of their 17-year-old son and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman sparked a nationwide conversation on race and a series of protests and petitions. It has also ushered in a response from some of the nation’s top leaders, including President Barack Obama.
Martin said he was honored to have the president acknowledge his son’s death in a public address – adding that his family’s main goal now is to make sure that Trayvon’s life will never be forgotten.
“Our top priority is that his legacy lives on,” Martin said. “If we lose hope, that’s our greatest disaster.”
But the parents said they pray that the death of their son, and the headlines it made, will have a lasting impact on families everywhere.
“I don’t make sense of what happened,” Fulton said. “There are things that I can’t take away from the case but I really believe that if we got a guilty verdict, everything would have stopped. So now, with this, the story continues, the story goes on.”
The story also continued for the hundreds of journalists who attended the NABJ convention, and beyond, who have a professional responsibility to report the latest developments on the issue.
Organizations like the NAACP have been heavily involved since the verdict and successfully called on over a million across the nation to sign a petition asking for federal prosecution and civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
Even celebrities like Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan have publicly announced they will boycott of Florida over its controversial gun laws.
NABJ’s role in the coverage of blacks in media
Meanwhile, NABJ used the convention as an opportunity to address one of the nation’s most hard-hitting cases about race, the justice system and profiling among blacks.
Not only did they invite Trayvon’s parents to address these issues to a group of media professionals, separate panels and meetings were also held that provided further discussion on the direction black journalists should take with their coverage.
“As far the news goes and covering black issues, it’s not always been something that news organizations have been guilty of doing,” said Corey Dade, a contributor to The Root. “This is the story, race in America is the news story. You can apply it to everything. There is a viable, lucrative market there when you start reporting about people of color.”
However, as African-American journalists reporting on black issues, many see themselves at a crossroads in remaining objective when writing about race.
“I’m black but I have to understand that the way that I come into the story is the way people will perceive my stories,” said Yamiche Alcindor a breaking news reporter at USA Today who has spent the last 17 months reporting about the Martin family. “It’s going to come from the way I look.”
It is a balance many media professionals must meet when delivering news about issues that hit close to home.
Conversations on controversial issues
At the conference, black journalists were given a chance to discuss the social responsibility they hold as minority professionals. All the while, panels inspired thought-provoking dialogue on the coverage of minorities in mainstream media.
One conference in particular specifically focused on this very topic and invited key journalists including: Dade, Alcindor, MSNBC host Toure, editor of the Orlando Sentinel Mark Russell, Florida state representative Alan Williams, state senator Dwight Bullard, political science professor Dr. Jason Johnson, and was moderated by CBS anchor Pat Harvey.
The panel spent over an hour discussing the perception of African-American males in media and the role of black media professionals to either help improve or permanently change the often negative portrayal of minorities.
Their conversation was addressed to journalists who face some of the same limitations and resources that were mentioned within their own professional capacity.
“For me, [in writing about Trayvon Martin’s] story, of course I’m going to write about race but I’m going to write about race in a way that is intelligent to help people understand why this story is about race,” Alcindor said.
Big names tackle big issues
Among the notable leaders who actively spoke out about their disapproval with the verdict were political activist and MSNBC host Rev. Al Sharpton and Bishop T.D. Jakes – both who also attended the NABJ convention on Thursday and addressed their concerns.
“I think the conversations we are having, painful as they are, are healthy. We have a propensity to avoid the elephants in the middle of the room, or simplify the tragedies and adversity,” Bishop Jakes told the Orlando Sentinel in a backstage interview after his conference.
“But we should not be derelict in our responsibility to have those tough conversations. I think we have lost our ability not to talk but to listen. From extensive discussions and star panels to Martin and Fulton’s address, this year’s NABJ conference provided much insight into what has been, and can be, done among black journalists in a climate deeply affected by race,” he said.
For now, many hope that these conversations go on and they depend on the work of all journalists to deliver news — both about race and other issues affecting African-Americans — to mass media.
To many of the journalists who attended the conference, the coverage of black America and specifically, the endeavors being made after Trayvon’s death, have been long-term projects and for others, the journey has only begun.
Yet despite their status, many agree with Fulton: the story continues.
Follow Lilly Workneh @Lilly_Works