Some media criticized for misleading coverage of Martin case

Apr 6, 2012

The death of a black teen at the hands of a neighborhood watchman has caught the attention of the nation, dominated media headlines and put a spotlight on Florida’s gun laws. But Lynn Hatter reports in the weeks since the death of Trayvon Martin, the focus on the circumstances surrounding the teen’s death has also created backlash against the media for misleading and sometimes inaccurate coverage.

NBC has been criticized for the way it edited 911 calls that portray the alleged shooter, George Zimmerman, as racially insensitive. Here is the original audio tape:

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."

Operator: "Is he white, black or Hispanic?"

Zimmerman: “He looks black.”

And here is the edited NBC  version of what was said:

 “This guy looks like he’s up to no good…he looks black.”

What’s missing from the NBC version is context.

Also under criticism is ABC, for comments about the surveillance footage of Zimmerman at the Sanford Police Department shortly after the shooting. The commentators said Zimmerman appeared uninjured.

And then,  there’s the issue of the pictures. For Zimmerman, a mug-shot photo. For Trayvon Martin, a photo of him as a younger kid. Both not true representations of the people as they would appear today.

Rallies like the one in Tallahassee on the 44th anniversary of the assassination of Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Jr., have occurred across the county in the wake of Martin’s death. The black teen was killed in the Central Florida community of Sanford following an altercation with neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who is Hispanic. Zimmerman says he shot Martin in self-defense and hasn’t been charged with a crime.

Differing versions of what happened continue to unfold, some people, like Tallahassee Mayor John Marks, are calling for restraint and to let the judicial process run its course.

 “We must remain vigilant. We have to. We must ensure justice is done. And we will. We must make sure that the court system operates appropriately for everybody in this circumstance. We’re not here to try anybody in the streets or through the press or anything like that. We just want the justice system to work as it should. The truth will come out.”

That pointed remark about being tried in the press is part of a bigger issue. Kelly McBride is with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

 “Those are very specific instances involving very specific news organizations. I don’t think most people generalize to most media based on the actions of a single news organization, because media is so much bigger than that. In the work I’ve done on this case, I’m not seeing people criticize the media overall.”  

McBride is tracking the effects of the coverage of the Trayvon Martin case, and the role of commentators in spreading accurate and inaccurate information.

 “And you may ask, do commentators more often create distortions and inaccurate impressions of a particular case? In this case, I think the commentators are definitely speaking to a specific audience and a subset. But I don’t think they’ve been more responsible for inaccuracies than anyone else.”  

Other outlets have come under fire for the way they’ve portrayed Trayvon Martin with reports that he was suspended from school for marijuana residue found in his bookbag. There are also allegations that it was Martin who threw the first punch in the run-up to his shooting—something the alleged shooter, George Zimmerman has maintained in his claims of self-defense. Meanwhile, state and federal law enforcement agencies are still investigating how Martin ended up dead, while walking home with an iced tea and a bag of skittles.  And the true details of the investigation won’t be revealed until those investigations are finished.