How TV news failed Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and American people

In the hours of continuous broadcast coverage I monitored during and after the trial of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, I couldn’t believe the lack of balance in coverage. Walter Cronkite warned that without a strong unbiased press, democracy would struggle.

Johnny Hanson/Houston Chronicle/AP
Houston activist Quanell X, left, walks past a man who would not give his name, during a protest in the River Oaks community in Houston, July 21. Dueling groups of protesters converged on a wealthy Houston neighborhood in reaction to last weekend's not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

In the charade that became the trial of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, and in the continuing aftermath of the verdict, there was one thing the American people didn’t get from much of the national broadcast media: fairness.

In the hours of continuous coverage that I monitored and recorded, I couldn’t believe the lack of balance in coverage. The media’s pro-Martin agenda was quick to highlight rallies, marches, and protests in defense of Martin while choosing to ignore similar news coverage from the pro-Zimmerman crowd.

Some news organizations seemed to resist the temptation of balanced reporting from the onset. What happened to investigating stories thoroughly? What happened to balancing a report with all points of view? And what happened to keeping agendas and opinions out of straight news reporting?

What we have had here is an acute case of agenda-style “infotainment.” Pioneering TV journalists Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite would, no doubt, be horrified.

While this may sound like I am a Zimmerman sympathizer, I’m not. Nor am I defending young Mr. Martin. I wasn’t there the night of the altercation, and I didn’t hear all of the court proceedings. But I am aware of the shoddy journalism that followed.

Fox News was airing mostly pro-Zimmerman interviews, with a few exceptions. MSNBC appeared to be in total support of a guilty verdict, and that theme carried through their “super-star” line-up for approximately six hours a night during the trial and in the aftermath of the verdict.

The media circus was botched from the start. NBC, who I’m sad to say is my former employer, is being sued by the Zimmerman family for airing an edited 9-1-1 call that paints Mr. Zimmerman in a false light.

The edited portion reads, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” In reality, Zimmerman told the operator, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” It wasn’t until the operator asked, “O.K., and this guy – is he white, black or Hispanic?” that prompted Zimmerman’s response, “He looks black.”

As the saying goes, “You can only make a first impression once.”

Though I can’t know for sure, I find it doubtful that NBC was editing due to time restrictions. It is possible that either they wanted the sound to follow an agenda-driven script – a conscious decision to skew the facts and manipulate viewers’ opinions – or it’s possible hasty negligence and poor oversight led to a bad decision and inaccurate portrayal. Either way, I have to wonder: Did those producers learn nothing at J-school?

I was glued to CNN the night of the verdict as I watched in horror. For a news gathering operation that has earned countless awards for outstanding coverage over the years, I believe CNN is now stooping to advocacy journalism to compete with Fox News and MSNBC.

As CNN continued to cover the pro-guilty verdict crowd, the casual viewer would have never known that there were also anti-guilty verdict protesters in the immediate area.

CNN Legal Analyst Sunny Hostin said, “I think justice took the day off.” Since not a single opposing voice was present to argue on behalf of the defense with strength, it seemed that journalism might have taken the day off, too.

All of the wasted airtime could have gone to discuss Martin’s and Zimmerman’s backgrounds. Although inadmissible in the courtroom, both contained details that constructively added to the conversation. It could have been used to discuss the particulars of so-called stand your ground laws, the legal standards of self-defense, or the legal standards of “reasonable doubt” in a court case such as this.

CNN, now run by Jeff Zucker, the former producer of the Today Show and the former president and CEO of NBC Universal, has taken a new direction for coverage that the company hopes will translate to more ratings and revenue.

From my observation, that new strategy includes wall-to-wall coverage of domestic dramas with strong storylines that relate to the human emotions of the viewers. What happened to the events in Egypt last week? What happened to the story where a Canadian town was devastated by a petroleum train explosion? 

The courtroom drama in Florida was so ubiquitous, the casual news consumer would have been completely unaware that news was still happening elsewhere.

The outcome of the George Zimmerman murder trial has illustrated to me once more that the broadcast news industry, and print reporting to an extent, is in dire need of a refresher course in journalistic principles and ethics.

Is it any wonder that only 28 percent of Americans feel journalists contribute significantly to societal well-being? In The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's latest poll asking Americans what occupations they feel contribute most to society, journalists ranked third-to-last out of 10, below artists and just above business executives and lawyers. This standing represents a 10 percentage point drop from four years ago – the biggest drop for any profession.

[Editor's Note: The original version of this piece misstated the percent drop in Americans' opinion of journalists.]

Cronkite warned that without a strong independent press lacking prejudice, democracy would struggle. I fear that time has come.

As someone who has benefited from 30 years of employment in the broadcast industry, I am not anti-ratings or anti-profits. But what seems to be lost on today’s news executives, is something else Cronkite said about in the news business: We need to be content with reasonable profits.

A rush to judgment, infotainment, agenda reporting, and a push to increase the bottom line at the expense of solid reporting, creates the perfect storm for journalism – and democracy. The frustration and aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial are precisely the circumstances in which thoughtful, balanced coverage is most needed. News broadcasters must keep the public's waning view of the media, the health of American democracy, and Cronkite’s wisdom in mind as they report on Zimmerman and Martin-related events in the coming days and weeks. After all, our profession’s code of ethics demand it.

Doug Spero is professor of mass communication at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. Spero spent 20 years in network television and local news at CBS and NBC. He was also a local news director for two ABC affiliates.

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