After a tumultuous month of media coverage and press conferences, Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey announced on Wednesday that neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was formally charged for the February 26 killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin. Declining to offer any details as to how she arrived at the decision to press charges, Corey suggested: “That’s why we try cases in the courtroom.” Regrettably, most pundits and media outlets do not have the same respect for the criminal justice process.
A recent Pew Center study on the media’s handling of the Martin case found substantial differences in the way the story was reported between cable news outlets. For example, between March 19 and March 28, MSNBC devoted nearly half of its airtime discussing the case. The most popular topics of discussion were Florida’s Stand Your Ground law and the city of Sanford’s questionable racial history.
Fox News, on the other hand, devoted only 15 percent of its airtime to the case and most stories focused on Martin’s past, statements in Zimmerman’s defense and the media’s handling of the story. According to the study, CNN, which spent 40 percent of its time covering the story, offered the most balanced reporting on the case.
The study did not address the instances of incorrect or even outright fraudulent reporting on the part of the media. CNN was forced to correct its initial reporting that Zimmerman uttered “f—ing coon” on his 911 call after an improved audio revealed he most likely uttered “it’s f—ing cold,” referring to the weather. NBC fired a producer after conservative bloggers caught the network airing a selectively edited 911 tape which created the false impression that Zimmerman’s confrontation with Martin was racially motivated.
Fortunately, the jurors who will decide Zimmerman’s fate will only hear the established facts of the case as determined by Florida’s rules of evidence, without any spin or manipulation. However, one still has to wonder how the extensive, and often unsubstantiated and biased, media coverage of the killing will influence the jury. Thanks to the media, It seems just about everyone in America now has some preconceived notions of what happened that night in Sanford.
No matter what the outcome is, the slanted media coverage on both sides assures that nobody can really come out a winner in the case. If the verdict results in vindication for Zimmerman, many Americans will never be able to accept the outcome and will almost certainly blame institutional racism or other nebulous demons. Zimmerman, who has been in hiding for weeks after receiving death threats, will never again be able to enjoy a normal life. If a jury finds him guilty, Martin’s family will still never again feel entirely whole. For anyone who truly cares about “justice,” either outcome should be equally tragic.