Share this article

print logo

Media's coverage of teen's death is widespread, contradictory

The story of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and the man who shot him, George Zimmerman, has become the most covered story in America, eclipsing even the presidential campaign, according to one media-tracking organization.

But the many Americans who turned their attention to the violent incident got radically different accounts of what happened on that rainy Sunday night in Sanford, depending on where they got their news.

The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that about one-fifth of the total news space was devoted to the shooting. (Pew sampled news outlets ranging across social media, blogs, newspapers, radio and television.)

On Twitter and the liberal cable outlet MSNBC, Trayvon has appeared largely as an innocent victim of racially charged violence by an overzealous would-be cop. Conservative websites such as Breitbart.com reported that the racial angle has been concocted or overblown, and the conservative DailyCaller.com focused on Trayvon's Internet postings, implying he might have been the sort of streetwise young man who would provoke a confrontation.

Since Trayvon's parents took the story national with an appearance March 10 on ABC's "Good Morning America," many details of the case have become bitterly disputed, especially in the more partisan corners of the media. Those who had managed to miss the story might have been forced to take notice March 23, when President Obama said a son of his would have looked like Trayvon.

MSNBC has been among the outlets following the story most intently, with the Pew study showing that from March 19 to March 28, the cable outlet devoted nearly half of its time to coverage of the shooting. By comparison, the case made up 40 percent of CNN's coverage during that time and only 15 percent of Fox News' coverage.

The Rev. Al Sharpton has devoted multiple episodes of his "PoliticsNation" show to the case. Sharpton accused Zimmerman of using "racial language" when he reported his suspicions about the young man walking in a hooded sweatshirt through his neighborhood.

Five days later, the release of the 911 calls in the case seemed to reinforce speculation that Zimmerman had referred to Trayvon by using an obscenity and an ethnic slur. However, because that part of the recording was difficult to understand, the call's release offered no direct evidence that Zimmerman acted out of racial motivation. Aside from the possible slur, he identifies Trayvon as black only after being asked by a dispatcher.

Another MSNBC host, Ed Schultz, has also not hesitated to suggest a racial motivation in the shooting. "The Trayvon Martin killing could be the Emmett Till moment of our time," Schultz declared, referring to the racially fueled 1955 murder of a black American teenager in Mississippi, "and justice is still not done."

By contrast, three days after Schultz's pronouncement, host Jon Scott of "Fox News Watch" asked of the story: "Does it deserve the attention of national media?" Two commentators, Jim Pinkerton and Cal Thomas, agreed that attention to the case had been overblown, as had the suggestion it was racially motivated.

Multiple conservative websites have scorned the racial focus, noting blacks are much more likely to be the victims of violence by other blacks than by whites. The Breitbart website noted that many accounts initially identified Zimmerman as white (in fact, his father is white and his mother of Peruvian birth) and how MSNBC, and others, justified playing the shooting as a racial showdown.

NBC said Saturday it would launch an internal investigation after a conservative media watchdog, the Media Research Center, pointed out how the "Today" show edited the tape of the 911 call. The edited segment made it appear that Zimmerman, not the dispatcher, had brought up racial identification.

Another media moment seemed to demonstrate how difficult it would be to bring clarity to the case.

ABC News reporter Matt Gutman on Wednesday released what he called "exclusive" video, reportedly of Zimmerman arriving in the police station after he was detained. Gutman wrote online that no bruises, blood or abrasions can be seen in the video, despite the neighborhood watch volunteer's statement to police that he had his nose broken and head bloodied by his confrontation with the teenager. (Gutman's story also noted, however, that one of three officers in the video does pause for a moment to look at the back of Zimmerman's head.)

It did not take long for DailyCaller.com, the conservative website founded by Tucker Carlson, to review the same video and, in the words of writer Matthew Boyle, to claim to have spotted "what appears to be a vertical laceration or scar several inches long."