My Poynter post: How to consume (and report) news from the George Zimmerman trial
As Florida’s prosecution of George Zimmerman on murder charges begins this week, the same old arguments and conflicts which characterize the story’s emergence as an international media phenomenon have risen again.
Particularly since the case’s jury selection has proven particularly tedious and drawn out – just check out Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery’s excellent Twitter feed from the courtroom for proof – media hoping to dip a toe into Zimmerman media coverage right now have to pretty much veer into the land of speculation and opinionating from the start.
Here’s my story from Monday’s newspaper on how the Zimmerman trial will turn Sanford, Fla. into the center of the media universe once it really gets going.
I also cobbled together a post for Poynter.org with some recommendations for journalists looking to cover the trial of a volunteer neighborhood watch captain charged with racially profiling an unarmed black teenager and starting a fight which led him to shoot and kill the youth.
But it struck me they could double as tips for how readers, listeners and viewers could consume news on the trial, too.
Already, the Philadelphia Inquirer has pulbished a column (also featured on the Tampa Bay Times website and cover of the TBT* tabloid) headlined “Not guilty: The case for George Zimmerman,” which seems to take many facts known about Martin and Zimmerman encounter and read them in a way most favorable to the shooter.
The piece, for example, accepts as a given that cries for help witnesses heard during Martin and Zimmerman’s fight came from Zimmerman. But witnesses have disagreed on which of the two were crying for help, as have forensic experts dissecting reocrdings of the call for both sides; the piece also seems to discount the possibility that Martin could have been winning a fight that Zimmerman started.
(In Zimmerman’s account of how their fight started to Fox News anchor Sean Hannity last year, he said he was fishing for his cellphone in his pocket when Martin punched him. I wondered, hearing that detail, if it was possible the teen feared Zimmerman was reaching for his weapon instead?)
This column seems to exemplify the story's biggest challenge: remaining fair while exploring all aspects of the case worth discussing. Recall the coverage of Casey Anthony’s murder trial, in which media outlets seemed to spend so much time on information the jury didn’t have access to, that the verdict acquitting Anthony of murdering her child came as a surprise.
My Poynter post notes that, easy as it is to focus on race issues, the trial could turn on very different legal issues (the key question: Who started the fight and why?). Different media outlets take on different roles in the Zimmerman/Martin case (newspapers focused on facts and scoops, TV channeled emotions, blogs featured obsessive detail and social media marshaled protest and action). And diversity can add context and accuracy, but only when balanced with other values.
My biggest advice to viewers is to constantly surf around and take in Zimmerman reporting from several different outlets. Question why a news outlet is showing you what you’re seeing and whether what you’re seeing is the entire story. (MSNBC anchor Al Sharpton, for example, was once a spokesman for the Martin family, while Fox News pundit Hannnity is close to Zimmerman)
Once opening statements begin the cycle of coverage will heat up – morning TV and cable TV reporrts will push more news outlets to pay closer attention – and we’ll see a deluge of material.
Staying focused on the fundamentals will likely help both journalist and consumers looking to understand one of the most controversial murder trials in recent history.