Why journalists call Trayvon Martin death a shooting, but not a murder

News organizations have used a variety of words and phrases to describe Trayvon Martin’s death: Fatal shooting. Shooting. Murder.

We used the word “murder” in the headline of a story I wrote about journalists’ coverage of Martin and George Zimmerman, who shot him. Some readers pointed out, though, that it’s premature to say Martin was the victim of murder. Even though Zimmerman admitted to the shooting, he has not been charged.

Time Magazine is one of the media outlets that used the word “murder” in the headline of a story about Martin. Time has since replaced the word with “killing.”

We’ve since added an editor’s note to our story and based on the reporting for this post, we changed the headline to say “killing.”

Time Magazine also used “murder” in the headline of one of its stories about Martin. After I contacted Time to find out about its decision to use that word, Daniel Kile, executive director of public relations, sent me a note saying that Time has updated the post and added this note:

“The original version of this story used the word ‘murder,’ which has judicial dimensions. We have substituted the word ‘killing’ for the death of Trayvon Martin.”

The AP Stylebook says a homicide only becomes a murder once someone is convicted.

“Unless authorities say pre-meditation was obvious, do not say that a victim was murdered until someone has been convicted in court,” the Stylebook entry for “homicide” reads. “Instead, say that a victim was ‘killed’ or ‘slain.’”

Dan Abrams, legal analyst for ABC News, said it’s understandable that people would use “murder” interchangeably with “killing and “homicide.”

“I think some advocates are intentionally using the word ‘murder’ because they believe this was a murder (pre-meditated or not) with the requisite intent. Fair enough. Analysts may make assessments about whether and why prosecutors ought to indict and on what charge. That is opinion. But those seeking objectivity should use the word ‘killing’ or ‘shooting,’ which is undisputed. Was it murder? Manslaughter? Self-defense? Those are thorny legal questions for prosecutors and ultimately a jury to decide.”

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  • http://twitter.com/EdwinHJ Eddie

     ”libel” not “liable”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Anderson/1057045154 Mark Anderson

    So Osama bin laden was murdered by Obama.

    Ok.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BOMY2O65B3GFWW25WKIDBF6QD4 Angela

    To me, when you take the life of another human being, that is murder.  I know we have nice little words for different situations when you take a life, but taking a life is murder.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a war, an execution, self-defense, or even an accident.  You can call it a shooting, an execution, killing, manslaughter, it all amounts to murder.  Trayvon Martin was murdered whether anyone wants to admit to that or not.  Murder by any other name is still murder.  Therefore it is absolutely necessary to ensure that taking another human life is the last resort.  Because once you do that, you have murdered someone and you won’t be the same person after that.

  • Nicole Schiffer

    I can’t speak for Gordon, but I would take his comment as sarcasm. That’s hard to convey in writing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=755730362 Jessica Cejnar

    If George Zimmerman is ever convicted of 1st or 2nd degree murder in connection with this case, then newspapers would be able to use the term murder without worrying about a libel suit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=755730362 Jessica Cejnar

    Unless the suspect was convicted of 1st or 2nd degree murder, saying a shooting is murder prior to a conviction could be grounds for liable if the person is found not guilty of both. Regardless of what happened.

  • http://twitter.com/jbelmont Jon Belmont

    Not necessarily bias. Could be inexperience. Many younger journalists who’ve never worked across the desk from a green-eye-shade editor get to post online with little or no editing of their own copy. Sad, but true.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KCQA7UGX4X7UHOPRDJ2XBAAXGA Josie

    To:  Aaron – You are correct, not all homicides are murder.  If someone broke into my home and attacked me, and I picked up a knife, stabbing and killing the person – his death certificate would be marked “homicide,” but, I would not have murdered the person. 

    Therefore, I apologize.

  • Anonymous

    You can find the full definition of homicide at this web site.  http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/homicide.  I believe it is the duty of journalism to report the facts of a case/situation and not speculate or use inflammatory language. 

    My heart goes out to the family for what seems like the senseless killing of their son.  If he was murdered, I pray that the legal sysem will gather that evidence and bring Zimmerman to justice.

  • Alfred Ingram

    The word that should be used is homicide. A human died. Evidence is supposed to determine whether or not it was justified. “I followed him down the alley when 911 asked me not to and in fear for my life shot the unarmed man in the back,” does not in and of itself justify anything. Ignoring evidence and telling people they didn’t hear what they heard, does not make the homicide justifiable. If the law creates excuses for really poor policework, the law needs rexamination, too.

  • Alfred Ingram

    It waddles like a duck. It quacks like a duck. It swims like a duck. It looks like a duck, but it might have a lawyer, so  for now,it’s a bird.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KCQA7UGX4X7UHOPRDJ2XBAAXGA Josie

    EXCUSE ME! -  I can’t believe you put in print, because this kid had on baggy pants and a hooded sweat shirt made him suspicious.  I know alot of kids – black, white, hispanic, korean that wear the same.  That does not make them suspicious and bad. this means they are dressing with the current style.  Your thoughts identify, that you are an ignorant RACIST, sterotyping a particular race because of what your ignorant parents told you.  You really ought to get to know a person, and not make assinin stereotypical judgements based on a person’s race or nationality.  Think about it, would it be fair to the caucassian race if all people of color chose to hate them based on this tragic incident caused by racist George Zimmerman? 

  • Anonymous

    Ap style. Jeez people!

  • http://twitter.com/HotCornerBlues Gary

     Do think only journalists read this site?

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Valid question, Trey. A lot of journalists probably did learn this early on. But if you don’t typically cover crime stories, you might not be as familiar with the right wording to use. For this reason alone, I think it’s worth drawing attention to the issue.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.facebook.com/trey.barrineau Trey Barrineau

    Do you really need to explain this to an audience largely made up of journalists? I’m sorry, most of us learned early on that you don’t get the paper sued via headlines. The post makes it sound like some new revelation.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QV4NTQIVJHHKS3PPCNPMWNWXWI Gordon

    Yeah – but the kid had baggy pants and a hooded sweat shirt on – so he was suspicious.  Sure it was raining. But if kid has hood up – means he is bad.

  • http://twitter.com/GeekAaron Aaron

    Not all homicides are murders, but all murders are homicides. I am not making any judgement on this specific case, but to say that homicide is murder would be incorrect.

  • Anonymous

    The question posed indicates that some news outlets did use the M-word, and that’s a real problem.

    “Murder” is a conclusion of law; “shooting” is a tier of fact. It’s that simple.

    To think that some editor type would do otherwise is further indication of an employee that should be immediately replaced, because it is a clear example of media bias!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/MVQ4QX37HEJH4U2RXYLKFKHKFU Alan

    Not commenting on this case, but rather on the terminology that’s being discussed:

    In the legal sense, “homicide” is NOT equivalent to “murder.” Murder is a subset of homicide and involves issues such as intent, the circumstances surrounding the killing, etc. It would be perfectly possible for me to fatally shoot or stab someone in front of multiple witnesses (and thus the death certificate would show the cause of death to have been homicide) and still be found not guilty of murder — for instance, if I was found to have been insane or acting in self-defense or the defense of others.

    Journalists MUST take these differences in terminology into account and use words carefully because to do otherwise is to risk being sued for libel. I say this as someone who worked for more than two decades as a newspaper copy editor and whose job was to be alert to just such situations.

    Again, I’m not commenting on the circumstances of this case — just the language involved.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joyce-Mary/1448490538 Joyce Mary

     How balanced was it for an armed man to take on an unarmed kid?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KCQA7UGX4X7UHOPRDJ2XBAAXGA Josie

    Re-wording it is not going to change the fact, this young man was MURDERED.  His death certificate would read:  Homicide and homicide is MURDER.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KCQA7UGX4X7UHOPRDJ2XBAAXGA Josie

    Re-wording it is not going to change the fact, this young man was MURDERED.  His death certificate would read:  Homicide and homicide is MURDER.

  • http://twitter.com/HotCornerBlues Gary

    One curious thing is how the press keeps using a photo Martin as an 11 year old while using Zimmerman’s mug shot photo. Very biased.

    Also, about 90% of the stories read as essentially press releases by the Martin family attorneys. Not much effort at balance.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KCQA7UGX4X7UHOPRDJ2XBAAXGA Josie

    It was a shooting; but it was also MURDER!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KCQA7UGX4X7UHOPRDJ2XBAAXGA Josie

    Ms. Tenore – As a licensed Funeral Director for the District of Columbia, and also a licensed Mortician for the state of Maryland for over 20 yrs, there are 5 categories listed on a death certificate in  terms of mode/manner of death in the Metropolitan area:  1) natural  2) accidental   3) suicide  4) homicide  5)pending.  I have never seen a Florida death certificate, but mostly likely, their mode/manner of deaths would be similiar.  I have never seen a “killing” category on any death certificate.  Trayvon Martin did not die of natural causes, accidental death or suicide.  I doubt if his death certificate is pending.  There is only one category remaining, and that is Homicide. (Homicide is MURDER!) No matter how much the caucassian community want to pretend this is something else and this senseless act was not motivated by race, the facts speak clearly.  Trayvon Martin was MURDERED because of his race, stereotyping and automatic assumption.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Good point, Kathleen. I changed the phrase to “fatal shooting” and added a related link. To your other point: Some journalists are calling it a shooting. (See these Google News results: http://bit.ly/GF7FO4)

    ~Mallary

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KCQA7UGX4X7UHOPRDJ2XBAAXGA Josie

    Ms. Tenore – As a licensed Funeral Director for the District of Columbia, and also a licensed Mortician for the state of Maryland for over 20 yrs, there are 5 categories listed on a death certificate in  terms of mode/manner of death in the Metropolitan area:  1) natural  2) accidental   3) suicide  4) homicide  5)pending.  I have never seen a Florida death certificate, but mostly likely, their mode/manner of deaths would be similiar.  I have never seen a “killing” category on any death certificate.  Trayvon Martin did not die of natural causes, accidental death or suicide.  I doubt if his death certificate is pending.  There is only one category remaining, and that is MURDER.  No matter how much the caucassian community want to pretend this is something else and this senseless act was not motivated by race, the facts speak clearly.  Trayvon Martin was MURDERED because of his race, stereotyping and automatic assumption.

  • http://twitter.com/KathBWilliams Kathleen Williams

    The words you used to link to a story in your post are “Fatal Killing.” First, all killings are fatal. Second, the actual news story you link to says “fatal shooting,” which is correct. Third, your whole headline is awkward … journalists are not calling it a shooting (I don’t think), they are calling it a fatal shooting, or shooting death; or slaying.