Justice for Jordan Davis? The Sun’s Coverage, Print & Website

On November 23, 2012, 47-year-old Michael Dunn fired ten shots into an SUV, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis.

Dunn alleges that Davis had a gun, but no evidence for this claim has come forth. Did Dunn really need to fire ten shots into a parked car in order to ensure his own self-defense?  Dunn is white; Davis is black;  the case has received nationwide attention not only because of its severity but also because of its similarity to the murder of Trayvon Martin, still fresh in our memory.

On Saturday (February 15), a jury announced that they could not reach a decision on the murder charge against Dunn.

The print version of the Sunday Sun included an article from Michael Muskal of Tribune Newspapers, the Chicago-based company which owns the Baltimore Sun.

Here’s the headline:

Coverage of the Dunn/Davis trial in the Sunday Sun

Coverage of the Dunn verdict in the Sunday Sun:  “Fla. man guilty, but not of murder, in loud music trial”

This confusing headline chooses to focus on a relatively insignificant detail (“loud music”) rather than on Dunn’s undisputed killing of Davis. The story itself provides almost no details  about Jordan Davis.

Regarding Davis, the article notes that yesterday would have been his nineteenth birthday and quotes Assistant State’s Attorney John Guy (the prosecutor in the case) as saying Davis had  “a big mouth” (as opposed to a weapon).

Even the quotations from Davis’s mother, Lucy McBath, focus on the trial and on Dunn. Muskal writes:

“It’s been a long, long road and we’re so happy to have just a little bit of closure,” Lucia McBath, Davis’ mother, said after the verdict. She also said she would pray for Dunn and has asked her family to pray for him as well. “It’s sad for Mr. Dunn that he will live the rest of his life in that sense of torment, “she said.

“Maybe that’s all she said,” responded two of my best friends when I showed them this part of the article. In fact, however, Ms. McBath has given extensive and wide-ranging statements, such as in the interview below:

McBath makes such statements  as:

“Even though I have the freedom to live my life, I don’t have who I love. And even though he does not have the freedom to live his life, he still has in his life who he loves. That’s never been taken away from him.”

and

“He didn’t just murder Jordan, he murdered our future. I’ll never have grandchildren. I’ll never have a daughter-in-law. I’ll never have great-grandchildren. All that future has been taken away.”

The only picture in the article depicts Dunn walking in the courtroom with two black police officers to his right:

Screenshot from DSCN4572.MOV - 2

The article says that Dunn was convicted “of four charges” then later describes all five of the charges of which Dunn was accused—but it never states clearly that Dunn was convicted of three counts of attempted murder, for firing into a car full of people.

Online, the Sun ran a version of the story from Reuters by Susan Cooper Eastman titled “Florida man faces 60 years in prison for shooting teens over loud music “—an improvement in clarity compared to the print edition.

The online story differs in several  ways from the print version. It:
  • Describes the racial makeup of the jury (“The sequestered jury of eight whites, two blacks, one Asian and one Hispanic”) whereas the print version described only gender (“seven women and five men”).
  • Includes more discussion of the “Stand Your Ground” law.
  • Gives information about the criminal history of Dunn and of Davis, noting both that Dunn “had no prior convictions” and that Davis “had no arrest record”. (Did Dunn have an arrest record?)
  • Spells out the counts on which Dunn was convicted: “But Dunn still faces at least 60 years in jail for the attempted murder convictions against the three other teens, legal analysts said”.
  • Calls attention to “the final three bullets”: ” The judge speculated that jurors felt Dunn overstepped the limits of self-defense law by shooting a final volley of three bullets after he got out of his car, when the teens no longer represented any kind of threat.”

The online story uses the same quotation from Ms. McBath, but also gives another quotation from the family of Jordan Davis:

“(Teenagers) shouldn’t have to worry about walking around, worrying about if someone has a problem with them,” said Davis’ father, Ron Davis.

“We don’t accept a law that would allow our children to be regarded as collateral damage.

Both the online and the print versions compare the Dunn/Davis case to the parallel Zimmerman/Martin case. Neither discusses the case of Marissa Alexander, which has also been widely cited as an important point of comparison. Ms. Alexander, a licensed gun owner in Florida, fired a warning in self-defense while under attack by her abusive husband. The bullet traveled through a wall and into the ceiling, and no one was hurt. It sounds like a textbook case of effective gun use for self-defense—yet it earned Alexander a 20-year prison sentence.

Media outlets such as Reuters and Tribune Newspapers are prepared to draw comparisons between Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin; why don’t they also mention the painfully relevant Marissa Alexander case?

Both versions include few details about Davis, and both state quite early that Dunn is a “software engineer.”

The Reuters article used on the Sun’s website is substantially better than the print version, but does share some of the same flaws. Most notably, Eastman’s more analytical reporting focuses on “gun laws” in the abstract, rather than the racism which influences their application. Even her quotations from Ron Davis and Al Sharpton are not explicitly contextualized in terms of racism.

Muskal (the print author) writes in the first paragraph that the case “leaves unanswered lingering questions about race, guns, and self-defense law.” Yet the article never says what these questions are; in fact it provides no analysis of race at all. Neither version of the explicitly mentions racism in America, even in the form of a perspective that some observers might hold. Contrast coverage by Al Jazeera as well as some more pointed essays from Colorlines and The Atlantic.

In a curious coincidence, the Dunn mistrial verdict comes almost exactly 50 years after the first trial of Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers. This jury also could not reach a unanimous verdict, resulting in the first of two mistrials for Mr. De La Beckwith. Decades later, researchers discovered that the juries had been tampered with by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission; De La Beckwith was re-tried and convicted of murder in 1994. You can log in to ProQuest with your library card to read the Sun‘s coverage from 1964 (again, pulled from a national news service). Here’s the first page:

beckwith 1964

Your thoughts? How has American journalism (as manifested on the pages of the Sun) changed since 1964? What else do you notice about these articles? What do you think about the Baltimore Sun‘s reporting on racially charged issues here and around the country?  Discuss in the comments if you please.

Edit / P.S. — Muskal’s article appeared on page 18 in the front section of the Sunday newspaper. I typically read the Sun online and was interested to look at differences in the print edition. One shocking fact I noticed was that the newspaper contained no articles whatsoever discussing international news. The closest it came was an article (which didn’t seem to make the website) about whether the Obama administration will bomb Syria, and an article about Fred Lazarus and Mayan pyramids. –earth2sun

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