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Facts vs. Perceptions in Trayvon Martin Coverage

By Ben L. Kaufman · July 23rd, 2013 · On Second Thought
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.  

Findlaw.com says this about second-degree murder in Florida: “To prove second-degree murder, a prosecutor must show that the defendant acted according to a ‘depraved mind’ without regard for human life. Florida state laws permit the prosecution of second-degree murder when the killing lacked premeditation or planning, but the defendant acted with enmity toward the victim or the two had an ongoing interaction or relationship. Unlike first-degree murder, second-degree murder does not necessarily require proof of the defendant's intent to kill.” 

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: letters@citybeat.com



07.24.2013 at 03:03 Reply

Very good article.  Another lesson I personally leanred from the Zimmerman trial was to wait for both sides of the story.


The prosecution had many public statements and leaks to the media telling the public the prosecution narrative.  Meanwhile, the defense (for whatever reason) was almost totally silent about their narrative of what happened.


I was shocked with how different the defense narrative was (and how it was supported by all the evidence) from the prosecution - and decided that you just cannot rely on an allegation until you hear both sides of the story.


It is hard to wait - but in the Zimmerman case - I think a lot of people decided Zimmerman's guilt based on just the complaint - and without hearing the defense.  The defense was totally overwhelming - hence the feeling/conclusion of overcharging.


Of course the police and prosecutors had the benefit of all of the Zimmerman statements - but the public did not (until trial).


Anyway - very good article.




07.24.2013 at 03:28 Reply

I was also surprised to hear about the 'gay panic' revelation, that Trayvon was warned on the phone during the encounter that 'he might be a rapist', which would help explain why TM doubled back to 'whoop that creepy cracker's ass'.  Seems kinda funny that the LGBT community would rush to his defense.  Oh well


07.24.2013 at 03:46 Reply

The author claimed to address facts rather than perceptions, but according to biologists and geneticists race is a social and political fiction which has no basis in biology or genetics.

In that light, ethnicity is no different from race - it is about heritage and appearance and self-identity.

George Zimmerman identifies as Hispanic (that's the box he checked on his Florida voter registration under "race"), so he IS Hispanic (even though he's half Teutonic Caucasian and 1/8 black), just as Trayvon Martin is black.




07.24.2013 at 05:02

Ok - he is hispanic.


Is he white hispanic; peruvian hispanic; black hispanic or teutonic caucasian hispanic?


I am not sure your statement really goes to race - which is the authors point (I think).


07.24.2013 at 05:37

He's Hispanic. He's obviously neither white nor black - he's his own unique shade.

And I directly addressed the fiction of race.



07.24.2013 at 06:52 Reply

Asian is not a race. It is an ethnicity. Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, etc. are Asians. But in the demographic forms, the person can only check ASIAN.


07.25.2013 at 02:08

Hispanic is not a race, Asian is not a race, Perivian , Portuguese Cuban, Vietnamese, Guamanian, Tongan are nationalities.  Races include ( but are not limited to):  Homo erectus,  Homo Habilius, Homo Sapiens Australopithicus, and the race of the current human population Homo Sapiens sapien.


07.25.2013 at 04:43

@GBMarsh: You're confusing species and subspecies with "race" - a term that is no longer used by geneticists and biologists, since it is purely a social construct.

The UN doesn't differentiate between race and ethnicity in dealing with discrimination - they both refer to heritage.



07.29.2013 at 03:34 Reply

"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. "

What's notable about Sharpton or Jackson leading a protest, putting their glad-handing and petty-liberalism aside, is that they are speaking from a position of an historically, and contemporarily oppressed identity. The agenda is not at all similar to the Phelps who call for "death to faggots," and to compare bigots to people who have been targets of bigtory their whole lives is to forget that we are only 50 years away from the civil rights movment, and 150 from the civil war. To not understand this is to not think critically about race in this country where, in 2012, 313 blacks suffered extra-judicial killings by the state or a vigilante, or this city, where we see 2 or 3 blacks die at the hands of the police each year (though you won't see reporting about those in CityBeat, who have a two thousand word column mouring the loss of a white man with mental illness who was ready to use his gun).

Was the best writer for CityBeat, Kathy Wilson, wrong to point out that there were no blacks featured in the recent pride edition? Am I wrong to point out that there is almost no mention of Erica Collins or Devon Williams or Everette Howard on this entire website?

But whatever, I guess we can close the book on race, folks. White man on CityBeat says it's worn out.