June 11, 2013

As media coverage of George Zimmerman’s murder trial begins this week, we already know a few things that will happen.

Tiny Sanford, Fla., will become the center of the media universe, with hundreds of journalists expected to travel to the Seminole County Courthouse for the trial of the Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old black teenager Trayvon Martin, kicking off international protests when police hesitated to prosecute him.

Media outlets, which staked out a position on the incident when coverage exploded in March 2012, will likely echo it in their work now. So expect liberal-focused MSNBC to follow the lead of anchor Rev. Al Sharpton, who was a spokesman for Martin’s family while also hosting his 6 p.m. show on the newschannel last year. As Mediaite columnist Matt Wilstein noted, MSNBC needs the ratings boost from people of color, which could come from championing the Martin family’s perspective now.

Similarly, conservative Fox News Channel anchor Sean Hannity, who has been close to Zimmerman from the case’s earliest days, will likely echo the right-leaning channel’s skepticism that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin, backing his claim of self-defense.

And CNN sister channel HLN, which saw daytime ratings spike 111 percent last month during coverage of Jodi Arias’ murder trial, will seek to capture lightning in a bottle again with saturation Zimmerman coverage. (Already Monday, as potential jurors filled out questionnaires and prepared for questions, the channel had a special graphic image assuring viewers it is “Watching Zimmerman trial” even when there’s no footage or reporting from that proceeding onscreen).

Despite telling me that he expected Zimmerman coverage to boost HLN’s ratings, top executive Scot Safon demurred when asked how star Nancy Grace — known for favoring prosecutors in her coverage of most trials — might land on this case.

But despite what we know will happen, there are a few lessons for journalists in what has already happened in Zimmerman/Martin coverage.

Here’s my list of stuff I hope journalists and pundits keep in mind while trying to fill time during what some commentators are already trying to dub the civil rights trial of the decade.

Easy as it is to focus on racial issues, the case’s legal issues may be very different. There will be lots of talk about the racial issues raised by the Zimmerman/Martin case, for two reasons: it’s very hard to get people to focus on difficult conversations about race, and the trial’s early days will focus on the tedious process of jury selection.

Did police drag their feet in investigating the case because of Martin’s race? Did Florida officials cave to public pressure and bring an unfair prosecution? Did the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground law encourage police to move slowly? Is this just another case of a black person killed in Florida for being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Those are valid questions, but the verdict in this case will mostly depend on the answer to a simpler one: Can prosecutors prove Zimmerman was the aggressor in the fight that ended with Martin’s death?

They will certainly ask if Zimmerman zeroed in on Martin because of his race, youth and appearance. And the lawyers may tussle — without admitting it directly, of course — over the racial makeup of the jury, knowing people of color may be more sympathetic to charges of racial profiling. But with Zimmerman’s defense so far declining to use the Stand your Ground law as a defense, some of the biggest issues raised by the shooting regarding race and law enforcement may not come into play without a witness or proof that refutes Zimmerman’s claim of how the fight started.

Consumers will need journalism that gets to the heart of the legal case presented, without getting lost in the ancillary issues referenced by the case, important though they are. Spending too much time on those outside issues may leave consumers so ill-informed about the actual case that the jury’s decision will come as a surprise, as happened in the Casey Anthony trial.

Different media outlets take on different roles in the Zimmerman/Martin case. Last year, the print media offered some of the best coverage of facts in the case, especially as newspapers such as The Orlando Sentinel and The Miami Herald competed to own the story. Television was a home for more emotional coverage, especially in morning television and cable TV newschannels, where pundits could argue through endless segments, using arguments that may or may not have been accurate.

Blogs were a home for some of the most obsessive coverage on the case, as independent writers sifted through mountains of publicly available evidence in ways even professional journalists didn’t necessarily have time to attempt. Social media became an area for activism and a quick way to push people to sign petitions, show up for protests, spread word about controversial statements and marshal public response.

Knowing how these platforms worked last year can help consumers and journalist sort through coverage now. Especially as the trial heats up and the opinions fly.

Media should be careful about being used. Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mara’s release of controversial pictures from Martin’s cellphone produced the coverage you’d expect, highlighting photos of guns, marijuana plants and the teen flipping off the camera.

But as O’Mara argued a futile motion last week to include the material in his opening statements, his actions seemed to go beyond trying to reach potential members of the jury pool with damaging information about the teen through news coverage.

His actions also sent a message to prosecutors: This is the material we have if you try to make Martin look like a saint. Since potential jurors aren’t sequestered, media coverage may still have an impact during jury selection; journalists seeking to be fair should be careful about what they report and providing a balanced picture.

Diversity can add context and accuracy, but only when balanced with other journalism values. Last year, journalists of color were indispensable in spreading word about the situation as authorities let 44 days pass before charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder.

The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, The New York Times’ Charles Blow, The Associated Press’ Jesse Washington and Trymaine Lee (then at The Huffington Post’s Black Voices website, now at MSNBC) are all African American columnists who spread word early about the Zimmerman case and/or developed potent stories about the racial implications of the case. But such perspectives also have to be balanced with accuracy and fairness.

NBC News, facing a lawsuit from Zimmerman for errors made in editing audio of his 911 call to police for broadcast, now finds itself regularly announcing during its current coverage on MSNBC and other outlets that the network faces legal action from the guy it’s reporting on.

Having to remind viewers of a huge past mistake every time you cover one of the biggest stories of the day is a good argument for keeping an eye on the facts in this case, even amid the pressure for scoops and impact.

There are more details on race and media coverage in the Zimmerman/Martin case within my new book, “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation”; details here.

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