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In Troy Davis case, where’s the context?

Published: September 23, 2011
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

Welcome to my new column! Although I don’t claim to be an expert about anything related to communication, I have studied it through the lenses of American studies, anthropology and journalism. I also text and tweet a lot, so that might count for something. After all, you can only fully understand something if you are immersed in it completely. With that said, I’ll remind you that I’m not claiming to be an expert. I’m simply here to give you my take on the world of communication—human communication, the media, advances in technology and whatever else tickles my fancy.

In “Elements of Journalism,” a 2001 book about the state of journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel explain that “journalism’s obligation is to the truth.” But what is truth? Sounds like a philosophy question, right? The answer could simply be “something that can be proven” or it can get a lot more complicated.

Lying to protect oneself or others is part of human nature but that’s not what Kovach and Rosenstiel were warning against. Accuracy, or the truth, is something readers expect from journalists and it’s an integral part of journalism as a whole. In a survey of journalists’ values and expectations of themselves and their peers, each journalist answered “getting the facts right.”

Telling the factual truth, however, is only part of that obligation, Kovach and Rosenstiel say. For journalism to hold up to those standards, the writing must be “substantively true,” Professor Maura Jane Farrelly (AMST) explained to the students in my class, Culture of Journalism.

It’s not enough for a journalist to be a “mere recorder of events,” they write, quoting 1920s journalist and political commentator Walter Lippmann: “News and truth are not the same thing … The function of news is to signalize an event … The function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality upon which men can act.”

In layman’s terms, saying something happened isn’t enough. Keeping in mind journalism’s goal of improving citizen’s ability to participate in a democracy, a good journalist must provide context so the reader understands the historical, cultural, social and political significance of the event.

The example Farrelly brought up in class was the death of four-year-old Marchella Pierce. Her mother, who allegedly beat and starved her, was charged with the murder. Later, two employees the Administration for Children’s Services were charged with criminally negligent homicide on the grounds that they neglected their duties and let Carlotta Brett-Pierce’s abuse of her daughter escalate to her murder.

In most coverage of the trials, little attention was given to anything besides the basic facts of the case. It wasn’t until May of this year, nine months after Marchella’s body was found in September, that Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes called for an investigation into “evidence of alleged systemic failures” in ACS. These “failures” were mostly related to the state of the lives of former ACS employees (who resigned shortly after Marchella’s death) Damon Adams and Chereece Bell: overstressed, overworked and under-appreciated.

As tragic as Marchella’s death is (I left class feeling more depressed than I had since a field trip to a funeral home last year), the real story here, the context that should have been initially uncovered by journalists, is the state of New York’s children’s welfare. A long-awaited look at ACS shows that there were many more factors at play than what was initially presented as a caseworker’s incompetence.

Another story lacking important context is an example of what journalists call an “ongoing concern”: a problem or story that lasts more than a few days and has no specific conclusion.

In 1989, Troy Davis murdered a police officer in Georgia. Two years later, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He remained on death row until two days ago, when he was executed by lethal injection.

In the 20 years after his conviction, Davis’ execution date was pushed back three times, and The New York Times reported, “The attempt to save him came to rival the most celebrated death row campaigns in recent history.”

All courts, however, maintained his guilt despite the appeals, petitions and requests for clemency, which came from prominent figures like former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and 51 members of Congress.

The day after the execution, Brandeis students walked around campus with duct tape gags reading “I am Troy Davis” and signs taped to their shirts reading “A man was lynched today” to show their disapproval of the execution. Some believed, like much of the American public, that Davis was an innocent man, and many were also attempting to show their condemnation of the death penalty.

While I applaud those students for taking part in a protest for what they feel is a violation of the justice system, what I saw disappoints me and reminds me where journalism has failed.

Journalists write and report about the death penalty when something they deem newsworthy happens: Someone involved in a high-profile case is sentenced or executed. The death penalty, as shown by students today, is something of which people disapprove, but why aren’t journalists keeping it part of the national dialogue throughout the year? They give the bare-bones, factual truth about Troy Davis, but not the larger context, only aiding the trailing off of dialogue and debate in the days following coverage of an execution. Those articles, and the people associated with them, deserve any and all relevant information included in the coverage.

We as American people take pride in our country because we have rights that are not available or accessible around the world. Included on that list is the ability to become an activist: We are able to have our own opinions, our own religion and (within reason) we are permitted to say whatever we want. Journalism has the ability to enable us as activists and the ability to help us form our own opinions.

By writing and publishing articles that don’t have enough context, we learn the factual truth about the world we live in. Unfortunately, we are often deprived of the substantive truth and the opportunity to use that truth to better the world around us.