Paging Reality: Media malpractice in Zimmerman trial

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The George Zimmerman trial drove me absolutely crazy.

One young man is dead for no reason. Another killed him. A jury looked at the evidence available and determined there was not enough evidence to convict Zimmerman for the killing. I’m still not sure why calling this a tragedy is at all controversial.

There were no winners in the case. Even Zimmerman showed little emotion when he was acquitted, reflecting the realization that he took another person’s life with questionable justification at best. However, the damage went even further than that initial tragedy.

The entire country lost as a result of this case. While no living person apart from Zimmerman himself will ever know exactly what happened that night or exactly who started the altercation, we can be sure of one definitive perpetrator that has made the world a worse place through this story.

The media.

Coverage of the trial was nothing short of an absolute disgrace. From attempting to impose an overhyped racial storyline onto the story, to the blatantly dishonest coverage of the self-defense laws in Florida, the media failed America in this case.

First, the initial race-based reporting on this story was disgraceful. Trayvon Martin’s family announced that the case was not about race, but you wouldn’t know that if you listened to media accounts.

NBC News set the stage for bad reporting when it selectively edited the 911 call to make Zimmerman sound incredibly racist. No matter how much money NBC has at risk in a pending civil suit brought by Zimmerman, the mortal wounding of the network’s credibility ought to be even more severe. Clearly, NBC has a problematic culture if any editor could think the 911 transcript edit was acceptable.

But the story deviated from the media’s preferred oppression-oriented racial storyline when it came out that Zimmerman is Hispanic, not white. The media quickly rushed to correct, with CNN saying the half-Peruvian Zimmerman is “white Hispanic” or “identifies as Hispanic.” If Fox News covered President Obama’s race by saying Obama “identifies as black,” can you imagine how CNN would react? I don’t want to either. To put it mildly, this was inappropriate from my media colleagues and the sort of thing that would end careers in almost any other field.

The result of that reporting is that the vast majority of the nation that simply wants everyone treated equally regardless of race saw racial overtones in this story one way or another. Some saw racial bias in Saturday’s decision, while others thought the appropriate race-neutral decision was reached. But both perspectives were probably influenced based upon the snap decision the media provoked viewers to make at the beginning of the trial rather than at the end when all the evidence was available.

The racial divide in America grew larger in this case, driven largely by differing perceptions of the same incident. Responsible reporting of the intricacies and difficulties of the case might have assuaged these concerns, but you probably knew that wasn’t possible when I used the term “responsible reporting.”

The media’s coverage of self-defense laws in this case is also troubling. Some of Saturday’s outcry correctly noted the problem posed by a person starting a fight, losing it and then using lethal force to get out of it. Such a person doesn’t deserve self-defense protections in our legal system.

But Stand Your Ground laws expressly do not protect someone in that situation. Indeed, the Florida Stand Your Ground law had absolutely nothing to do with the Zimmerman case. The defense waived the right to a Stand Your Ground hearing, and it didn’t impact the decision of the court.

In my view, Stand Your Ground laws move our self-defense laws in the right direction, protecting the person who did not start a confrontation at the expense of the person who did. If anything, I think these laws should be strengthened, with more protections for people who are assaulted. Laws making clear that a person under attack has no legal responsibility to retreat from an assailant are common sense.

­It is time for responsible citizens to demand more from the news media. Responsibility was so lacking in the coverage of this tragedy that it calls into question which media outlets could even be considered responsible.

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