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Zimmerman case hurt media’s image

July 29, 2013

By Matthew Reavy

A Pew Research poll this month revealed that less than a third of Americans believe journalists contribute “a lot” to societal well-being.

That’s more in a continuing stream of bad news for the media. Unfortunately, the press has done little to improve that image with its coverage of Trayvon Martin’s death.

GARY W. GREEN / Orlando Sentinel, Pool George Zimmerman, portrayed by media as a gun-crazy vigilante who killed a harmless youth. Read more at

GARY W. GREEN / Orlando Sentinel, Pool George Zimmerman, portrayed by media as a gun-crazy vigilante who killed a harmless youth.

Instead, reporters took a tragic situation and sensationalized it, igniting racial tensions rather than focusing on what many see as serious gaps in our gun and self-defense laws. The case undoubtedly merited attention. Martin was unarmed when he was shot last year. His killer, George Zimmerman, hadn’t been arrested. Martin’s family held a press conference seeking media attention, with their attorney alleging that Zimmerman had profiled their son.

The problems began almost immediately. The first Associated Press article on the incident, published March 8, described a situation in which Martin had “gone to a convenience store to buy some Skittles and was returning home when he was confronted by an armed man who was head of the local neighborhood watch.”

Consider the image of being “confronted by an armed man” and compare that with events as we now understand them to have unfolded. The article pointed out that Martin was black and his killer was white. This was crucial to a story that CBS News’ Charlie Rose gravely warned earlier that day had “serious racial overtones” – so crucial that when Zimmerman’s family revealed that he was Hispanic, some media, including the New York Times, stressed that he was a white Hispanic.

Certainly that is a valid description. The Census Bureau classifies Hispanic origin as distinct from race.

But the media typically do not. In fact, during the year prior to Zimmerman’s mention in the Times, one would be hard-pressed to find the paper refer to any other individual as both white and Hispanic. Some news organizations rightly pointed out that Hispanic Americans could also be guilty of racial profiling.

But even when his father revealed that Zimmerman grew up in a multiracial family and that his great-grandfather was black, the media – like Ishmael describing Moby Dick – continued to obsess about his whiteness. At every turn the media seemed to willingly pull facts out of context to sensationalize the story and amplify the racial angle:

The first publicized photos depicted a 14-year-old Martin, three years younger and smaller than at the time of the shooting. Zimmerman was shown in an orange prison jumpsuit. These were, at the very least, prejudicial to public understanding. Read more at


From → Analysis, Commentary

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