Trayvon Martion, George Zimmerman, and the Media

Even as the facts of the Trayvon Martin case swirl around in the murky water they’ve been in for more than a month, one bad guy in this case is easy to see: the news media.

This story just won’t go away, and that’s deserved. This will likely prove a perplexing legal quagmire for weeks, months, and years. Aside from the bare facts of the case, in the philosophical realm society must weigh a controversial handgun law pitted against cries of racism. In all honesty, the case should be debated for the long-term — once we have all the facts. For that reason, I’m not making any judgment calls about or Martin’s or George Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence. Both the activism and the politicizing on the periphery are expected in cases like these, regardless of whether or not they’re merited. But much of the news media bears guilt, as does a society of media consumers that encourages the bull to stampede through the china shop.

As a former newspaper journalist, the errors here are obvious. In fact, errors may be too weak a word. Falsification and dereliction may suit the situation better. The problem with the media here is that too many pundits, experts, and opinion writers have blathered on, trying to draw conclusions for a case in which the public is missing an indeterminable number of facts. You’ve also had journalists blatantly alter the scant bit of information which is already public, presumably to perpetuate a particular one-sided narrative of the case. In my estimation, that’s what this story and the much of the media’s handling of it comes down to: maintaining a narrative sure to stir up controversy, true or false.

The Zimmerman 911 Tape

The most glaring example comes from NBC’s “Today” show evidenced by the network’s ongoing investigation of the incident. The program recently aired the tape of the 911 call Zimmerman made just before fatally shooting Martin. In the edited version, Zimmerman appears to have committed an unforgivable crime:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good . . . He looks black.

The actual 911 exchange:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.

Dispatcher: OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

Oh, the magic of ellipses. The problem is clear: the edited version makes Zimmerman look like an out-and-out racist, targeting Martin because he was black. In reality, the reason Zimmerman brought up race in this conversation was in response to the dispatcher’s question. Whoever actually edited the tape and the producer who allowed it to air should both be fired. Their credibility vanished as quickly as the missing sound bite, along with NBC’s journalistic integrity.

ABC’s Double-Take

The second example comes from ABC. The outlet ran a news brief with surveillance video of Zimmerman being processed at the local police department and made the point that Zimmerman had no blood on his face and appeared not to be injured. This after Zimmerman’s version of the facts is that he shot Martin in self-defense after the young black boy broke his nose and bashed his skull on the pavement.

Later analysis of the video showed what could be a large gash on the back of Zimmerman’s head. That rendering of the video may still be too unclear to tell for sure. But police did claim that Zimmerman had been treated by EMTs on the scene before they took him into custody. Any journalist who’s ever been to any crime scene should have known that if Zimmerman were beaten as badly as he claimed, emergency personnel would have cleaned him up on the scene. ABC News either didn’t care to take that into consideration, was incompetently ignorant of the normal procedure, or willfully skewed the facts. Now they’re also walking back their first take on the video.

The Bigger Problem: Media-Saturated Citizenry

Again, it’s still too early to know what all really transpired that February night in Orlando, Florida. George Zimmerman is likely the only person still alive who knows.  The police and attorneys will likely never know what really happened — and neither will the news media. At the present moment, the general public knows far less than investigators, and our judicial system is designed that way for a four-word reason: due process of law. Any hack reporter who’s covered one violent crime knows that law enforcement officials hardly ever release all the facts to the media before any sort of trial or grand jury proceeding. But producers and editors have been too busy chasing their ratings and readership to faithfully make that clear. As the Los Angeles Times points out, the media has confused the general public far more than it has enlightened it. Even worse, the media has probably ensured that Zimmerman will never have a fair trial, if the case goes that far. The public has been frenzied by punditry and shabby reporting. Even if Zimmerman is acquitted or is never indicted, he’ll likely have to keep an eye diected over his shoulder for a very long time. The bombastic voices on both sides of the larger debate on the case certainly bear blame. But the media’s job is be a gatekeeper for society  — informing the public of the controversy and outrage, but weighing what ought to be published. It comes down to being virtuous in the newsroom, and the media collectively has failed with this story.

But the state of the media didn’t sprout the night Martin died. This is merely the animal that roams the grounds when over-indulged by an increasingly lazy keeper. To be blunt, we get too much information from 24-hour cable news and too little from the written word. I’m biased: I was a newspaper reporter and editor, and I still prefer the written word even after leaving the news industry. In the time I hunted and edited stories at The Herald-News, I never once saw one of the Chattanooga or Knoxville TV stations work as diligently as my co-workers and fellow print journalists to get the same story. Never. On more than one occasion, I saw a TV news outlet take creative license in its editing and completely misrepresent a source. On several occasions our work was copied and never credited by TV news teams. This may be generalizing, but keep in mind the folks who get called up to anchor the national nightly news shows got their start at the local level. I don’t mean to ignore bad media ethics in other venues, but in my experience the horrible journalism practiced by so many TV reporters does a disservice to the public.

More philosophically, the TV medium itself has had horrid effects on the general populace. The last few national elections bear this out. More and more political candidates are victimized by ongoing narratives in the media that are easy to tell and score more viewers. Americans care more now about how candidates come off on-screen rather than platforms and policies. In my opinion, the proliferation of debates this year was more about entertainment than news value, though they did have that. In such a highly visual and easily digestible medium, how could we not begin to care more about what we see on-screen rather than what we contemplate in our heads?

Irresponsible TV news is the way we have consumerized truth. It’s easy and fun to take in, and we can pop in an hour or two with little effort. We feel informed, and we think we’re informed. But in reality, watching a moving picture while listening to a pontificating blowhard will never force us to interact with content the way reading does. To read is to think.

The media has made a mess of the Trayvon Martin case, guilty or innocent as George Zimmerman is. The American public’s journalistic gluttony allowed it to happen.

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