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HARPER: Media misreporting rampant in Trayvon Martin case

- - Wednesday, June 26, 2013

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A combination of pressure through social media and poor journalism led to the trial of George Zimmerman, who is accused of second-degree murder in last year's shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Immediately after the shooting in Sanford, Fla., which is 20 miles northeast of Orlando, the media described Mr. Zimmerman as white, setting up the racially divisive meme of a white man killing a black teenager — a characterization that proved to be wrong.

A columnist for The New York Times described "the burden of black boys in America and the people that love them: running the risk of being descended upon in the dark and caught in the cross-hairs of someone who crosses the line."

The media then described Mr. Zimmerman as a "white Hispanic" after it was revealed that his father is white and his mother comes from Peru. Even now, many media outlets use this description: "Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic."

Under the definition of the U.S. Census Bureau, Mr. Zimmerman qualifies as Hispanic. Why do the media continue to emphasize this inaccurate racial theme? It's probably because they think such sensationalism provides more readers and viewers. Instead it brings the media's credibility into question.

That's not all. The press and supporters of Trayvon's family maintained that Mr. Zimmerman had not been injured during the confrontation, placing in doubt his claim he was acting in self-defense because he said the youth had struck him and thrown him to the ground. Police photographs clearly showed Mr. Zimmerman had suffered injuries to his head, nose and eyes, which were consistent with a fight of some sort.

The inaccuracies and poor reporting continued. The media described Trayvon as a good student. Subsequent information, however, showed he often got into fights, used marijuana and was suspended from school before he was shot — material the judge has restricted the defense from using. Further evidence indicated the teen had marijuana in his system at the time he was shot. Moreover, Trayvon's purchases of watermelon-flavored fruit juice — not iced tea as reportedly frequently — and Skittles may not have been so innocent. These are two of three ingredients of Purple Drank, a concoction that also includes cough syrup he used to get high, according to his text messages.

It gets worse: NBC News and MSNBC took the misinformation campaign to a new level by editing a call to police from Mr. Zimmerman to make it appear the defendant was racist. NBC apologized and fired some of those responsible for the deception, which is a clear violation of journalism ethics. (Full disclosure: I am an expert witness in a lawsuit by Mr. Zimmerman against NBC and MSNBC.) MSNBC's Al Sharpton also became a leading advocate for Trayvon's family — a role that would usually violate the network's prohibition on personnel engaging in political activities. An MSNBC representative said Mr. Sharpton had received an exemption from the policy.

The stories leading up to the trial still hype the racial issue. In a recent editorial, the South Florida Times said Sanford is "notorious for being biased against black males and ... has a history of justice being warped in favor of white people."

The newspaper even argued that Mr. Zimmerman should be forced to prove he did not stalk the teenager to kill him. What a warped view of our legal system, where it has always been the government's responsibility to prove a defendant has committed a crime.

Fortunately, a jury will hear testimony and evidence about what happened on Feb. 26, 2012, so a verdict will be based on facts rather than the poor reporting that has appeared so far in much of the media.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and "20/20." He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @charper51.