Ample coverage, but little clarity

The case of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and the man who shot him, George Zimmerman, has become the most covered story in America, eclipsing even the presidential election, according to one media-tracking organization.

But the many Americans who turned their attention to the violent incident got radically different accounts of what happened on that rainy Sunday night in Sanford, depending on where they got their news.

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that about one-fifth of the total news space was devoted to the shooting. (Pew sampled news outlets ranging across social media, blogs, newspapers, radio and television.)


On Twitter and the liberal cable outlet MSNBC, Martin has appeared largely as an innocent victim of racially charged violence by an overzealous would-be cop. Conservative websites such as reported that the racial angle had been concocted or overblown, and the conservative focused on Martin’s Internet postings, implying he might have been the sort of streetwise young man who would provoke a confrontation.

While much of the frenzy has centered on Zimmerman’s past run-ins with police and on Martin’s musings and photos posted to Twitter and MySpace, the avalanche of coverage has been unable to resolve the most critical unknowns: Who instigated the final confrontation? Did Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, have good reason to feel he was in danger? Did local police handle the case evenhandedly?

Past experience -- for example, in the 1991 Rodney King beating -- has demonstrated that facts aren’t easily agreed to when cases take on a racial tinge. Opinions and preconceptions have even greater currency in an era of 24-hour news and social networking.

Under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, the man who studied criminal justice at community college likely will suffer no repercussions if he can persuade state and federal investigators of the truthfulness of his initial self-defense account. Zimmerman, 28, reportedly told Sanford police that he had broken off his surveillance of Martin when the 17-year-old came up to him, punched him in the nose and knocked him to the ground before banging his head into the concrete sidewalk.

It took more than a week after the Feb. 26 shooting for the coverage to spread beyond local media. Eleven days later, Martin’s father held a news conference, calling on Sanford police to arrest Zimmerman and release 911 tapes. On March 10, Martin’s parents appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and the story had arrived, in earnest, on the national stage.

Since then, many details of the case have become bitterly disputed, especially in the more partisan corners of the media. Those who had managed to miss the story might have been forced to take notice March 23, when President Obama said a son of his would look like Trayvon.

MSNBC has been among the outlets following the story most intently, with the Pew study showing that from March 19 to March 28, the cable outlet devoted nearly half of its time to coverage of the Martin shooting. By comparison, the case made up 40% of CNN’s coverage during that time and 15% of Fox News’.

Al Sharpton has devoted multiple episodes of his “PoliticsNation” to the case. Sharpton accused Zimmerman of using “racial language” when he reported his suspicions about the young man walking in a hooded sweat shirt through his neighborhood. Five days later, the release of the 911 calls in the case offered no clear evidence that Zimmerman acted out of racial motivation. He identifies Martin as black only after being asked by a dispatcher.

(Sharpton’s involvement in the story has also raised questions about a blurring of journalistic lines. He has acted to rally supporters to the Martin family’s view of the case, sometimes via statements from his activist organization, the National Action Network. Several journalism critics have noted that this might confuse viewers who then see him talking about the same issues on his MSNBC show. MSNBC President Phil Griffin has supported Sharpton’s dual role, saying only that the host is required to disclose his off-air activities for the cause.)

Another MSNBC host, Ed Schultz, has also not hesitated to suggest a racial motivation in the shooting. “The Trayvon Martin killing could be the Emmett Till moment of our time,” Schultz declared, referring to the racially fueled 1955 murder of an African American teenager in Mississippi, “and justice is still not done.”

By contrast, three days after Schultz’s pronouncement, host Jon Scott of Fox News Watch asked of the story: “Does it deserve the attention of national media?” Two commentators, Jim Pinkerton and Cal Thomas, agreed that attention to the case had been overblown, as had the suggestion it was racially motivated.

Multiple conservative websites have scorned the racial focus, noting that African Americans are much more likely to be the victims of violence by other blacks than by whites. The Breitbart website noted that many accounts initially identified Zimmerman as white (in fact, his father is white and his mother of Peruvian birth) and how MSNBC, and others, justified playing the shooting as a racial showdown.

NBC said Saturday it would launch an internal investigation after a conservative media watchdog, the Media Research Center, pointed out how the “Today” show edited the tape of the 911 call. The edited segment had made it appear that Zimmerman, not the dispatcher, had brought up racial identification.

Another media moment seemed to demonstrate how difficult it would be to bring clarity to the case.

ABC News reporter Matt Gutman on Wednesday released what he called “exclusive” video, reportedly of Zimmerman arriving at the police station after he was detained. Gutman wrote online that no bruises, blood or abrasions can be seen in the video, despite the neighborhood watch volunteer’s statement to police that he had his nose broken and head bloodied by his confrontation with the teenager. (Gutman’s story also noted, however, that one of three officers in the video does pause for a moment to look at the back of Zimmerman’s head.)

It did not take long for, the conservative website founded by Tucker Carlson, to review the same video and, in the words of writer Matthew Boyle, to detect “what appears to be a vertical laceration or scar several inches long.”

Two and a half weeks ago, CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin already seemed impatient for a resolution.

“Why is it taking so long?” she asked, to determine whether Zimmerman acted in self-defense. Correspondent David Mattingly answered her in a way that stands up well today: “This gets very complicated. You don’t have anybody who was there watching at that precise moment when the gun was pulled and fired. Only Zimmerman knows exactly what he was thinking and what he was going through.”