Martin, Zimmerman and the media machine

Graphic by Vicente Capala/TNL

The racist shot the drug dealer.

If mass media is to be taken at its word, George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin assume different roles each day in the revolving door of a story being broadcast on every news outlet available for the past month.

The story burst onto the scene in a rush of breaking news confusion, painting Zimmerman as a vengeful young man looking to pick a fight and gunning down an innocent 17-year-old black boy out of spite. Images of a smiling and much-younger-looking-than-17 Martin paired with a mug shot picture of an unshaven and disgruntled Zimmerman circulated the Internet, and lawmakers donned hooded sweatshirts over their suits and ties while in legislative session to speak out. Thousands marched in protest, demanding justice.

But not much later, Zimmerman’s written statement to Florida police came to light with Zimmerman claiming Martin attacked him, punching him to the ground and slamming his head repeatedly against the sidewalk while trying to take his gun. An act of self-defense necessitated the killing, Zimmerman claimed. Right around this time, ABC News confirmed Martin had been suspended from school for 10 days in mid-February for marijuana possession—one of several recent suspensions—adding fuel to the fire that Zimmerman was simply a concerned citizen looking to protect his neighborhood from a dangerous looking hoodlum.

Debate continues to rage back and forth between these two polarizing views, on forum boards and news stations and Twitter and Facebook. Many contest there appears to be no blood or bruises on Zimmerman in police surveillance video the night of the killing, while others point to enhanced images of a strange line on the back of his head as definite proof of a fight. A cry for help on recorded audio right before the shooting has been alternately proclaimed to be Martin and Zimmerman. The Florida “stand-your-ground” law, which gives state citizens the right to use deadly force if “a reasonable belief of threat” exists, adds further complication to the heated back-and-forth.

The truth being argued about by all sides of opposition probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Here is all that is really known, as far as the public is concerned, so far:

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On the night of February 26, 28-year-old George Zimmerman fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Unarmed and carrying Skittles and iced tea, Martin was wearing a dark hoodie and walking toward his girlfriend’s father’s house in a gated community in Sanford, Fl. when the altercation with neighborhood watch volunteer Zimmerman occurred, resulting in his death.

Beyond these known facts, the media has been having a heyday bandying about and perverting any new incoming information. Sensationalism is, has been, and will continue to be the name of the game. Eager to feed their viewership, news stations have been throwing appropriate consideration to the wind in their attempt to bring a new plot twist to the story with each update.

NBC was recently revealed to have spliced two portions of audio together to show Zimmerman as a racist, a serious deviance from professional journalism. In their recording of the call Zimmerman made to 9-11 before approaching Martin, the neighborhood watchman is heard to say, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.”

The actual statement is as follows:

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.”

Dispatcher: “Okay, and this guy—is he black, white or Hispanic?”

Zimmerman: “He looks black.”

Another, more blatant manipulation of public opinion comes in the stock photos used in almost every news report: the young smiling Martin and the disheveled Zimmerman in what appears to be a orange jumpsuit. Paired together, the photos conjure up sympathy and disgust before any actual information is even delivered—a wholly unfair practice.

And on and on, Fox News, NBC, ABC and others continue to debate and speculate and offer up new damning “evidence.” Constantly releasing a flood of alternating views and unnecessary updates is not what the media should be for; neither should it assume to flaunt our legal system’s basis of innocent before proven guilty. Put the manipulation of emotion aside—freedom of speech in the media does not cover the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

Social media has had its own hand in disruption as well. Acclaimed movie director Spike Lee, upset that Zimmerman has yet to be arrested, recently tweeted what he believed was the man’s address to his nearly 250,000 followers. The address was actually that of an elderly couple, well into their 70’s, who were living in Sanford where Martin was shot. The couple was forced to pack up and flee after receiving numerous threats. Even if Lee had tweeted the correct address, he is essentially advocating vigilantism, which has the potential to result in another senseless tragedy.

The media cannot, and should not, act as the judge, jury and executioner for any case such as Zimmerman and Martin’s. Leave that responsibility to the courts*—it’s in their job description.

*TNL corrected an error in the last sentence that read “Leave that responsibility to the Supreme Courts” when it meant to say just courts.