The trial of George Zimmerman, who admits to shooting Trayvon Martin to death, offers lessons to journalists.
First, stick to the facts. Perceptions are not facts.
If we ignore partisan and often self-serving polemics, his acquittal reminds us that according to the law, not all homicides are “murder.” It’s also sloppy, inaccurate journalism to call every killing a murder. Homicide isn’t murder until someone is convicted of murder. Zimmerman called it self-defense, and even Zimmerman’s prosecutor said Martin’s death might have been manslaughter.
Another lesson arises from our national need to categorize events by race. Obama didn’t help with his comment last year:
"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." After that,everyone could be sure this would be another race case, regardless of evidence heard in court. Obama’s post-verdict remarks were no better, keeping race foremost.
News stories and commentaries consistently characterized Martin’s death as a black teen killed by a shooter who wasn’t black. Reported comments used that to justify outrage as though it was worse than myriad young black men killing other young black men.
Coincidentally, Zimmerman confused observers. Maybe it was his family name. I have no idea what race category Zimmerman would embrace. Some stories and commentaries called him white. Then some journalists and commentators carelessly substituted “Hispanic” as though it is a race. At least it was something to call him.
The 2010 U.S. Census asked respondents their race and whether they were Hispanic. If the answer to Hispanic was yes, the Census asked whether each respondent was “Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano,” “Puerto Rican,” “Cuban” or “another Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin . . . for example, Argentinian, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Spaniard and so on.”
That’s because “Hispanic” is a cultural, linguistic, geographic or ethnic description. Hispanics can belong to any racial group: think Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman. Equating Hispanic with race reminds me of the old cliché about civil rights activists: “black, white and Jewish.”
(Brazilians are not Hispanics; their heritage is Portuguese, not Spanish.)
Labeling Zimmerman racially and/or ethnically also betrayed bias in the mainstream news media. By and large, journalists timidly failed to identify him by color or ethnicity but they never failed to identify Trayvon Martin as African-American, most often as “unarmed black teenager.”
But can you remember any story that described the admitted shooter as an “olive-skinned Hispanic” or “brown-skinned Hispanic”? If Martin’s race was central to the event — and I’m not persuaded it was — so was Zimmerman’s ethnicity.
As if to remind readers of the perceived injustice, the Enquirer story about a local post-verdict protest demonstration identified Zimmerman as Hispanic and Martin as black.
Still another lesson arises from what defense attorneys call “over-charging.” It’s a great public relations ploy by elected prosecutors. If you don’t believe it’s manipulative, look at the final lesser charge to which most defendants plead or are convicted.
Even Zimmerman’s prosecutors acknowledged over-charging when they — not the defense — asked the judge to let jurors consider the lesser charge of manslaughter.
In this case, overzealous prosecutors, responding to public outcry, charged second-degree murder. And they couldn’t prove it even though Zimmerman admitted to killing Martin.
If Zimmerman is guilty of anything, it was prosecutors, not jurors, who let him walk free. That kind of over-charging isn’t alien to Hamilton County, but it too rarely is questioned by reporters, especially when pleas to lesser charges are accepted by prosecutors and judges.
Journalists also should resist efforts to manipulate us into acting as publicists for predictable activists who use Martin’s killing and Zimmerman’s verdict to advance their agendas.
Just as we increasingly use caution in publicizing the gruesome anti-gay signs displayed at military funerals by Pastor Fred Phelps’ followers from Westboro Baptist Church, we should ask what is newsworthy about Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton leading a protest.
Stand your ground, handgun-control and conceal-carry advocates are no more newsworthy, piggy-backing on this killing and verdict.
CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]