15 July 2013

Interesting re-cap

While the social media is very active on second guessing a jury decision on the Zimmerman case, Rem Rieder did an interesting column on pointing out the bias media takes on reporting the “too delicious”. The factual layout of how multiple news channels had to recant their stories was, at the very least, interesting. Let’s not also forget that most of this is driven by “ratings” – in other words, what we “want to hear and believe”.

I am copying the text instead of putting the USA Today link.

Column: Media got Zimmerman story wrong from start.

The role of the media cannot be ignored in the Zimmerman case. 

It’s complicated.

Life is packed with nuances and subtleties and shades of gray.

But the news media are often uncomfortable in such murky terrain. They prefer straightforward narratives, with good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. Those tales are much easier for readers and viewers to relate to.

Which brings us to Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

The story of their tragic confrontation on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, was framed early on. Zimmerman, then 28, was the neighborhood watch captain/”wannabe cop” who racially profiled and ultimately killed Martin, an unarmed, hoodie-clad black teenager out on the streets of the gated community Retreat at Twin Lakes simply because he wanted some Skittles.

The storyline quickly took root, amplified by the nearly ubiquitous images of the two: a sweet-looking photo of a several-years-younger Martin released by his family, and a mug shot of Zimmerman from a previous arrest in which he looks puffy and downcast. The contrasting images powerfully reinforced the images of the menacing bully and the innocent victim.

Some of the media’s major mistakes stemmed from stories that fit neatly into that widely accepted narrative. NBC News edited Zimmerman’s comments during a phone call to inaccurately suggest that he volunteered that Martin seemed suspicious because he was black. In fact, Zimmerman was responding to a question when he mentioned the teenager’s race. The network apologized for the error.

Similarly, ABC News broadcast a story reporting that a police surveillance video showed no evidence that Zimmerman suffered abrasions or bled during the confrontation with Martin. Shortly thereafter, it “clarified” the situation, reporting that an enhanced version of the video showed Zimmerman with “an injury to the back of his head.”

When it emerged that Zimmerman’s mother was Peruvian, some news outlets took to referring to him with the rarely used phrase “white Hispanic,” which is kind of like calling President Obama “white black.”

Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lawyer, was brutal in his post-acquittal comments about the press’ treatment of his client. Hard to blame him.

While the Sanford police originally declined to prosecute Zimmerman, State Attorney Angela Corey charged him with second-degree murder in the wake of the flurry of news coverage, street protests and a powerful campaign on social media.

But there was much more to the story, as the obvious weakness of the prosecution’s case against Zimmerman and the jury’s not-guilty verdict make abundantly clear. There was evidence that Zimmerman decidedly got the worst of it during the struggle before he shot Martin. Martin was an athletic 17-year-old, not necessarily a helpless victim. Zimmerman may well have been acting in self-defense.

This is hardly to suggest that Zimmerman is a candidate for canonization. This is on him. It was his reckless behavior that set this tragedy in motion. If he had stayed in his vehicle as he was told to do by the police, Trayvon Martin would be alive today.

As more details emerged, so, too, did a fuller picture of the events of February 26, 2012. But by then the popular view of what had happened had hardened.

Conservatives see this episode as yet another manifestation of the pervasive bias of that dreaded liberal media. But there’s something else at play. Journalists are addicted above all else to the good story. And the saga of the bigoted, frustrated would-be law enforcement officer gunning down the helpless child was too good to check. It’s also another example of how groupthink can shape news coverage.

A healthy dose of skepticism should always be part of the journalism process. And in this case there was a particularly strong reason for caution. While some residents of the complex saw some parts of the conflict, only two people knew, really knew, how it went down. And one of them was dead. Under those circumstances, certainty was elusive.

Back in 2006, the nation’s media gave huge play to a saga in which three Duke University lacrosse players were charged with raping a stripper at a team party. But the case collapsed, the prosecutor was disbarred and many news organizations looked seriously foolish.

Asked what had gone wrong by journalist Rachel Smolkin for a reconstruction of the episode in American Journalism Review, Daniel Okrent, a former New York Times public editor, responded: “It was too delicious a story.”

Sound familiar?

But the Duke lacrosse fiasco also provides some hopeful guidance for the media in dealing with the next Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman story. Well before the case imploded, Stuart Taylor of National Journal and Joe Neff of the News & Observer in Raleigh did topnotch, against-the-grain reporting, poking holes in the prosecution’s overwrought version of history.

Let’s hope we see much, much more of that the next time the news media encounter a story that’s “too delicious.”


Posted July 15, 2013 by Rajib Roy in category "Musings


  1. By Kerry Batts on

    Excellent article, and a good example of why it’s so hard to trust the Media. I’ve even caught myself reading about a suspect and thinking, man what a monster. And them I remind myself, we haven’t seen the evidence and there hasn’t been a trial, why would I trust a reporter?

  2. By Jayaraman Raghuraman on

    Everyone seems to have forgotten there is a dead man in all this – he is not here to tell us he would have liked to live in spite of all his faults.

  3. By Narayan Venkatasubramanyan on

    i’m glad this author of this piece was honest enough to leave this in: “It was his reckless behavior that set this tragedy in motion. If he had stayed in his vehicle as he was told to do by the police, Trayvon Martin would be alive today.” if the exercise of justice is to punish people for taking the law into their own hands when expressly told to resist the urge to do so (and thereby dissuade others from doing the same), this verdict failed. you can’t lose sight of that by saying that the media sensationalizes the news. that is not news.

  4. By Joydeep Haldar on

    Still doesnot take away the fact that an adult with a loaded gun, got out of his car (against instructions) to follow and confront a high school kid…..who btw got shot and killed….as Uncle Ben (Spiderman) once said with great power comes greater responsibility, and in this case the onus is on the adult carrying the gun….sad very sad

  5. By Vijay Ramchandran on

    No doubt the media has serious issues, but so does the justice system. As FauxJohnMadden tweeted “George Zimmerman no jail time. Plaxico Burress served 2 years for shooting himself. America!

  6. By Rajib Roy on

    Vijay, Plaxico did not get 2 years of jail for shooting himself. That is an incorrect assertion.
    Plaxico broke the law by carrying a gun into a public place (a NY bar). It was a loaded gun. He did not have a license to carry a concealed weapon. In NY or NJ. His last license to carry a concealed weapon expired in 2008 (And that was for the state of FL).
    He stood to be in jail for 3.5 years if convicted by strict NY gun laws. Instead of standing trial he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and got 2 years in exchange (actually even lesser time with good behavior). The bullet that hit his thigh very narrowly missed a security guy (within inches). In any case, he did not get jail time for shooting himself. That was not where he broke the law.

  7. By Vicky Ruffin Cupit on

    I have been saying all along that if he did not get convicted that the media would try to find a reason to keep the story going…. now they are playing the “race” card with the feds. All about money and ratings and we Americans buy into it every time….

  8. By Rajib Roy on

    Narayan, You raise some interesting points.
    Certainly, had Zimmerman listened to the 911 person (who, I suspect was looking out for Zimmerman’s safety) and stayed in the car, nobody would have died.
    On the other hand, we are talking about convicting somebody for manslaughter in a criminal court – throwing that person in incarceration or worse taking his life away. Not listening to the 911 person is not a criminal violation. (I am not even sure it is obstruction of justice in this case since the law enforcement folks were not trying to actively do something anyways). Killing somebody is. And therefore the jury has to look into why somebody got killed.
    “Beyond reasonable doubt” is the standard to be used to decide who killed (there is no debate here), the means (there is no debate on this either) and the motive – and this is where the case was brought. “Racial profiling” versus “Self defense”. (unlawful death versus killing to stop getting killed – which is allowed by most state laws).
    It appears that a jury of six women who was given more data and facts and arguments from both sides – much more than most of us have access to – came to the conclusion – unanimously – to acquit him against the charges.
    There are rare instances of juries reversing prior opinions (with more data and facts). But in this case, why should anybody trying to second guess the jury not be equated to arm-chair justice?
    I understand a civil case works differently. It tries to prove a different point and there are different penalties for it (I do no think you can be jailed even if convicted) – and such points may still be proven by different juries working to judge those different points in this case (with different proof of burden – “more likely than not” is what I believe is used).

  9. By Rajib Roy on

    Jayaraman, ummmmm…. it is certainly unfortunate that somebody died. No amount of arguments can bring that person back. What we are debating is do we have reason to take another person’s life away – or at least put him away from society – if not for life for a good time.

  10. By Rajib Roy on

    Vicky, media has certainly become about ratings and money. My guess is that in this case, media will move on to something new. The Martins are not well heeled enough to pursue a civil lawsuit unlike the Simpson case (this is where money comes in!!!). And we, the public have collective Alzheimer’s. Remember how that Florida lady with dead daughter was accused of killing her daughter? You could not open up a TV channel or newspaper without live coverage going on. She got acquitted, we shook our heads in disbelief and a few days later, we do not even think about it. We have moved on to the next sensational story. And that is why, I think it is better to trust the jury than the public.

  11. By Vicky Ruffin Cupit on

    So very true…. that is why our justice system works….. lots of folks say it is broken…. but they should try to get a fair trial in another country…..

  12. By Narayan Venkatasubramanyan on

    Rajib, i know wikipedia is no authority on the law but, for what it’s worth: “… a person who runs a red light driving a vehicle and hits someone crossing the street could be found to intend or be reckless as to assault or criminal damage … There is no intent to kill, and a resulting death would not be considered murder, but would be considered involuntary manslaughter. The accused’s responsibility for causing death is constructed from the fault in committing what might have been a minor criminal act. Reckless drinking or reckless handling of a potentially lethal weapon may result in a death that is deemed manslaughter.” i don’t think you can call it self-defense if you run a red light, run someone off the road because your only alternative was driving off the road yourself, and then claim you did it in self-defense. surely no one would argue that you weren’t protecting yourself but if you provoke the situation, i think you lose your right to absolve yourself on the grounds of self-defense.

    i think you’re losing sight of the article you posed. blaming the media for not portraying the case accurately doesn’t itself invalidate the protests that have followed the verdict. once you strip away the media noise, what are you left with? just a guy who decided that he was going to take on a responsibility for which he was not trained, not equipped, and not authorized. and another guy who died as a result.

  13. By Rajib Roy on

    Interesting way to think about it. I like the way you are looking at the scenario. I, personally, come to very different conclusions though. While not aligned, I understand your point of view.

  14. By Narayan Venkatasubramanyan on

    i’m curious to know how you think about this.

    regarding your point about second-guessing the jury … i think in a legal system that has to deal with complex situations like this, the outcome of a jury trial can often be at odds with what we would viscerally call justice. the law is in some sense an elaborately coded system that metes out punishment for wrongdoing. like users of complex systems, people can complain about what appears to be a bogus result without knowing where the bug is. and we can still close a bug report with a simple “not a bug” but the accompanying explanation can’t be “because the system produced that result”.

  15. By Narayan Venkatasubramanyan on

    probably not. but does that mean we accept every verdict and quietly acquiesce with a shrug? i assume that the u.s. is still a free society. i could be wrong … i’ve been gone for a while and i’ve heard things have changed lately. 🙂

  16. By Rajib Roy on

    I think there is an assumption that in “we” would viscerally call justice, “we” = the rest of the world minus the jurors. In this case, I have not yet seen any data that makes me believe that there was a miscarriage of justice. I understand fully though, given what I think is the same data (you might have researched more), you have a different belief.

  17. By Rajib Roy on

    I think, given your last comment, the debate – however, well intentioned is going elsewhere. Nobody is trying to right away from people giving their opinion on any court verdict out there. The opposite of disagreeing viscerally is not acquiesce with a shrug. If a verdict defies sense and sensibilities, it deserves a meaningful introspection and debate. Neither visceral disagreement nor acquiescence takes us forward.

  18. By Rajib Roy on

    I thought the original article was a good step towards that meaningful introspection and debate. Pointing out how media jumped too quickly. One might even try to make a case two large media channels even tried to “twist” the facts.

  19. By Narayan Venkatasubramanyan on

    precisely the reason why i decided to get past all the media characterizations and get to the core facts. the question boils down to this: did zimmerman needlessly provoke a confrontation in which then he had to use deadly force? or was he the blameless victim of an unprovoked attack that prompted him to defend himself? the article posed that question but then proceeded to say that everyone had been misled to the wrong answer by the media without answering that question.

  20. By Rajib Roy on

    If we want to understand the decision further, we need to get into what can a jury do and not do. Why did the jury come to the conclusion that it came to? We have to agree that they are average citizens, when explained the law and rules of decision making, can perfectly perform the same. In which case, did they have more data? Are we the ones who do not have to operate from the platform of “innocent unless proven guilty”? Are we thinking of different charges than what the prosecution brought? Speaking of which, why did the local prosecution decide not to bring in charges to begin with?


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