Media Effects

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and the Justice of Journalism

by Thomas Britt

5 June 2012

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman 

Reporting the News and Making the News

In reviewing media reactions to the story, it’s not difficult to find some major missteps. One of the earliest and most consequential failures was in the representation of each man by a single photograph apiece. The widely distributed image of Martin was an older picture – a childhood photograph featuring his small stature and young, smiling face. Zimmerman’s photo was also old. It was a 2005-booking photo provided by the Orange County Jail, with the bulky, solemn Zimmerman wearing what appears to be the orange jumpsuit many associate with prison.

Basically from the beginning of the national coverage, the selected and promoted images of both men were unrepresentative of their current circumstances. In a story about the photo debate that ensued, Dylan Stableford wrote, “Like it or not, the images of the victim and the shooter have become as important in the court of public opinion as the facts.”

The simplification of the narrative (innocent, angelic child killed by bloodthirsty hulk in prison jumpsuit) was only the beginning of a series of stumbles that took the news consuming public further away from the truth of each man’s character. One development was an “overcorrection” of sorts, with some websites such as Business Insider and Twitchy publishing pictures of a grown-up, bird-flipping picture of Martin. However, to the embarrassment of both websites, the young man in that photo was not the Trayvon Martin shot by Zimmerman. Similar photographs of the correctly identified Martin were found via his Twitter account, but that didn’t justify the prior misidentification.

This rush to provide photographic evidence of character (as if doing so were possible via isolated images) yielded nothing but more division and speculation along racial lines. Eventually, a variety of pictures emerged, many of which would have been available to the press at any point in the case had they been interested in comprehensive reporting. Problematically, the use of race to describe the men was a major component in the selectivity of images. Zimmerman was widely reported to be white and Martin was identified as black. The persistent framing of the incident as a white-on-black crime again ignored the facts of the case: Zimmerman self-identifies as Hispanic, as his mother is originally from Peru. In recent weeks, the evolution of Zimmerman’s race has gone from white, to white-Hispanic, to Hispanic, even reaching current reports that his great-grandfather was black.

Yet despite many available facts that contradicted (or at least complicated) framing the incident as absolutely racially motivated, some networks decided to pursue such an angle with gusto. The figure at the front of MSNBC’s coverage of the Martin/Zimmerman story was Reverend Al Sharpton, a man with a long history of speaking out publicly on issues of race and justice. However, this time, he was both anchor and subject – officially hosting PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton as part of the regular MSNBC lineup and covering the case from the inside, as a public advocate for the Martin family. Howard Kurtz, writing for The Daily Beast, asked, “In what other context would a news organization allow someone to become such an integral part of the story and then represent the organization? Shouldn’t Sharpton have to choose between his dual roles?

Sharpton’s status as a bona fide journalist is disputable, but if Sharpton or MSNBC at least took any cues from the Society of Professional Journalists’ suggested Code of Ethics, then they would be more inclined to “act independently” and to “avoid conflicts of interests” and “associations and activities that may compromise integrity.” Furthermore, Sharpton did relatively little to separate his threats of escalated civil disobedience from other concurrent declarations made by activists in response to the case, such as the New Black Panther Party’s offering a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman, “wanted dead or alive.”

The most egregious and easily avoidable error in the coverage of the case was less ambiguous than photo selection, race identification, or the avoidance of conflicts of interest. In a series of events now known in some quarters as “Editgate”, the original audio of Zimmerman’s 911 call to report Martin wandering around the neighborhood was edited by NBC News in a way that drastically misrepresented the exchange between Zimmerman and the dispatcher. In the original recording of the call, the dispatcher asks of Martin, “Is he white, black, or Hispanic?” Zimmerman straightforwardly answers, “He looks black.” The exchange is very clearly a routine matter of identification.

However, NBC repeatedly aired an edited version of the recording that removed the dispatcher’s question. So in the manipulated version, Zimmerman appears to say, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” By removing the dispatcher’s question, NBC News created the impression that Zimmerman was profiling Martin and focusing on his race as a matter of suspicion. Although the president of NBC’s news division eventually addressed the issue, calling the deceptive edit a “mistake” and disciplining the involved employees, the damage had already been done in the court of public opinion. As Chris Francescani wrote in a Reuters story about the situation, “blogs, along with media critics and rival networks, have charged that the edited call has inflamed racial tensions in an already volatile situation.”

Exposure of the deceptive editing didn’t end the practice or put the issue to rest, at least not at NBC. As reported in the Huffington Post, reporter Lilia Luciano combined “sections from two different portions of the tape to give the misleading impression that Zimmerman said the phrase, ‘This guy looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something. He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male.’”

Having cleared, released, and repeated multiple questionable edits across television and Internet pieces about the case, NBC might have temporarily gained viewers drawn to the network’s sensationalization of the story. However, in the process, the network stirred racial tensions and opened itself up to scrutiny and convincing accusations of bias and distortion. Sadly, Stelter’s comments about WikiLeaks’ reputation for redacting material without the sound judgment of journalists could also easily apply to this situation. To think multiple bad edits made it past a number of figures within NBC’s editorial process, stretches credibility to the breaking point. The more likely explanation is that the network’s goal of justice precluded honest reportage of the facts.

It’s impossible to determine the exact role these media misadventures might have played in the decision of special prosecutor Angela Corey to charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder. Many are weighing in with different opinions on the subject of whether Zimmerman will get a fair trial. Although the media frenzy has tapered off a little, the case remains in the news and will no doubt dominate headlines if the trial provides new fodder for the established narrative. However, no new development will change the fact that one man is dead, another’s life is forever altered, and a range of relevant social issues/components of the story went underreported for the sake of fostering negative race relations. 

In late May, attendees at a University of Massachusetts Dartmouth commencement ceremony reacted with shock when Rep. Barney Frank commented on the hooded academic robe given to civil rights leader and honorary degree recipient Hubie Jones. Jones, whose lifelong commitment to social justice has focused in part on helping young people gain access to better educational opportunities, has transformed the lives of students who might otherwise have been excluded—students not unlike Trayvon Martin.

Bizarrely, Frank used the occasion of Jones being honored to make a joke about academic apparel and black men. Referencing the hooded sweatshirt Martin died in, Frank said, “You now have a hoodie you can wear and no one will shoot at you.” Trivializing Jones’ life and Martin’s death in the same breath, Frank’s bad joke might have received more coverage, had the major media outlets treated the Zimmerman/Martin case with discernment and respect in the first place. Yet this is again a tragic story around which so many in the media dropped the ball, thus Frank’s comment will likely float away as just one more insult added to the injury of the missed opportunity to discuss race and violence with intelligence and honesty.

Meanwhile, justice seems more elusive and harder to define with each passing report. Call it the Media Effect.

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