How Atlanta’s oldest Black newspaper covered the Ahmaud Arbery trial

Brunswick, Georgia resident Annie Polite puts on a button for Ahmaud Arbery outside the Glynn County Courthouse on November 24, 2021. (Sean Rayford / Getty Images)

When journalist Mark Hayes received the news last week that three white men were convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, the veteran newsman said he felt relief — but also frustration. 

Relief that Arbery’s family received justice, but also frustration that these killings happen in the first place. But as national news director for the Atlanta Daily World, the first Black daily newspaper established in the 20th century, Hayes said focusing too much on individual trials misses the point.

“African Americans have been saying for many, many years, that the system is broken,” said Hayes, whose paper is now owned by Real Times Media. “We need to pay more attention to why the system doesn’t work, as opposed to just looking at jury verdicts.”

Hayes, who was twice nominated for an Emmy Award and previously was an anchor for NBC 5 in Dallas, spoke to NBCU Academy about coverage of the Ahmaud Arbery trial, what the mainstream national news media missed, how the trial impacted the local Black community and the important role of Black newspapers. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


What was your reaction when you heard the verdict?

There were mixed emotions. Obviously, justice for the family and relief for many in the African American community, especially here in Georgia and around the country, who saw that incredibly heinous videotape. And then frustration when it comes to the system. They thought they could get away with murdering an African American man in cold blood and get away with it, like it was OK, like they had permission to do it.

When we looked at the case, it’s everything that African Americans have been saying for decades now when it comes to crime and punishment and justice in this country. If it wasn’t for the videotape being leaked to the media, we may have never gotten to this point, which I think angers us all because we’ve said on so many occasions that the system was not designed to work for us.

It’s happened so many times that African American men and women have been cut down and there seemingly is no justice. So there was relief and frustration — but it’s not over yet. There’s still more to come, especially with the former prosecutor who’s been indicted and is going to face charges for trying to help these gentlemen cover up this heinous crime and the cold-blooded modern-day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery.

Was it difficult to put aside your personal emotions while covering this trial?

It was incredibly difficult. I’m the father of two African American men — one who is 26, and one who is 33 — who could have easily been Ahmaud Arbery. That could have happened in my neighborhood, and it scares me each and every day. Unfortunately, we’ve seen far too many cases of African American men like Ahmaud Arbery who don’t survive these kinds of violent confrontations — you can’t call them anything but modern-day lynchings.

Taking the emotion out of our coverage almost does our community a disservice because we still need to remain vigilant and remain aware. We still need to educate our young men and women about how to best protect themselves, because it’s an existential threat for us. If you make a mistake, you may not come home. As African American journalists, we need to be able to convey that message so that everyone is able to best protect their families and their own existence, and to still understand the facts of the case.

Were there any important angles the mainstream media missed about the trial?

The mainstream media didn’t pay enough attention to the fact that these antiquated laws of citizen’s arrests and “stand your ground” are still on the books in many states. The law has been repealed here in Georgia, but the mindset has not been repealed, and people still feel like it’s OK — as we saw the McMichael father and son and William “Roddie” Bryan chase down an African American man in broad daylight to hunt and kill him. I think until we start addressing those issues and the issues that are systematic, we’re going to see more and more of these cases.

The mainstream media also missed the indictment of the Brunswick district attorney, Jackie Johnson, on obstruction of justice charges. African Americans have been saying for many, many years, that the system is broken. Well, now we know why the system is broken — because we have people that are willing to break it to protect the defendants that they see worthy of protecting and not bring charges against those who commit heinous crimes. At the same time, we’re seeing African American men being exonerated after spending 10, 20, 30, 40 years in prison on what is seemingly scant evidence. We need to pay more attention to why the system doesn’t work as opposed to just looking at jury verdicts.

How did the trial impact the local Black community?

This trial was extremely divisive. We saw the defense team in this case trying to victimize the victim. In closing arguments, you heard one of the attorneys argue that Ahmaud Arbery had long, dirty toenails as if to villainize this man because of the way that he kept himself, and it just made no sense. People were very, very angry by the characterizations that we saw throughout the trial of Ahmaud Arbery as if we hadn’t seen the videotape, as if this was not a vicious and brutal crime in any reasonable person’s mind. I think the verdict will go a long way toward healing. Even Gov. Brian Kemp put out a statement asking for healing and unity in our state.

What was the response when the defense tried to prevent Black pastors from being in the courtroom?

The community met that with anger and frustration. It spoke to the privilege that we’ve been talking about in the media so often lately. It didn’t matter where you were at that time; everybody was talking about the nerve of the defense team to try to eliminate the support system for the mother of the victim, which is the way it was perceived around Georgia and for many people around the nation. It brought about a visceral reaction from people. I still get upset and annoyed by it today. And it was right up there with the long, dirty toenails comment made by the other defense attorneys.

Why do you think the Kyle Rittenhouse trial received so much more media attention?

Well, I hate to say it, but Kyle Rittenhouse’s victims were white men, and we see that white victims tend to get more coverage. Our mindset as journalists needs to change, and I do think that that will come with more people of color in the decision-making capacity in mainstream media and network coverage. We’ve got to have more voices at the table to help us understand that there are mothers grieving in the Black and brown community as well when these kids go missing and when these kids are tragically taken away from us. It’s not to say that the Rittenhouse victims were not tragic, because they were in every way, shape and form — but I believe that the loss of white life engenders much more coverage, and I don’t see that changing without having more people of color steering the coverage toward a more balanced approach.

Can you talk about the history and legacy of your paper, the Atlanta Daily World?

William Alexander Scott founded this newspaper in 1928, at a time when you would think such a thing wasn’t possible. As a Morehouse man, he was a visionary who understood how to monetize the opportunity, not just for big businesses like Coca-Cola or Sears, but he had the awareness to help African American businesses get sponsorships in the newspaper, too, to promote their goods and services. He understood this as a business opportunity, as well as an opportunity to tell stories by and for the African American community.

The Scott family, while in the ’30s and ’40s had conservative views and even fancied themselves as Republicans, in the ‘60s came to grips with the fact that the civil rights movement was an existential moment in our history and that we needed to be able to share these stories in a trustworthy manner for our community. At that time, the mainstream media was not concerned with the Black experience and making sure we have the information we need to understand the issues that were affecting us.

It’s a legacy we must protect and continue to uphold to provide that shining light in the media for our African American brothers and sisters who are also doing amazing things, not only leading the fight in the civil rights struggle, but also blazing new paths in business, entrepreneurship, technology, in every field. We have to be that shining light that we can pass on to younger generations to remind them that anything is possible. William Alexander Scott told us in 1928 that anything was possible when he founded a newspaper — a newspaper that sent the first correspondent of African descent to the White House for regular coverage. So it is a legacy that we must respect and protect.


Author
Michael H. Cottman

is Program Editor for the NBCUniversal News Group’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Team. He is an award-winning journalist who has authored and co-authored nine books about race, social justice and the Black experience in America.