Do The Media Have Trayvon Martin's Case Covered?

Apr 1, 2012
Originally published on May 11, 2012 10:33 pm



The shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin continues to grab headlines as new details emerge in that case. Martin, you'll remember, was the unarmed African-American teen who was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida. It happened in February. That volunteer, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, admitted shooting Martin. But under Florida law, he hasn't been arrested or charged in the incident. That has sparked national outrage, as investigators work to piece together what happened. And there are questions about the intense media coverage surrounding the case. For more on that aspect of the story, TV writer Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times joins us now. Welcome to the program, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You wrote at one point, quote, "When Martin's death first blossomed into a nationwide story, supporters wondered how the news of his killing would have been treated if the teen was a less sympathetic figure." What did you mean by that?

DEGGANS: Well, initially, you had this picture of a 17-year-old who was unarmed and he didn't seem to have any record. He certainly hadn't been in any trouble with the law. And so there was a sense that there was this innocent teenager who was gunned by this volunteer neighborhood watchman who may have targeted him because of his race.

Now, what we've seen more recently is attempts by particularly conservative websites to unearth more recent pictures of him. So he looks older. He wore one of these gold-capped grills on his teeth, which made him, I guess, look more streetwise. He had tattoos, which we haven't seen in a lot of the early photos that were circulated of him. And he had some trouble with school. He'd been suspended three times, and the last time he was suspended because they had found a plastic bag on him with some marijuana residue. These websites have also featured his tweets from a closed Twitter account where he curses a lot and talks about some explicit subjects.

And, you know, there's this attempt, I guess, to bring down his image as a kid who was totally out of trouble and totally innocent. I'm not sure that that justifies someone being shot while they're essentially headed back from a convenience store.

MARTIN: Martin's family and their supporters are saying that they believe race played a role in this shooting. How do you think racial issues are driving or influencing coverage of this story?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, the ultimate question is did George Zimmerman, this volunteer watch figure, zero in on Trayvon Martin because he was suspicious of a young black teen. The other question is did the police do everything that they could do to investigate this crime or did they take Zimmerman largely at his word when the shooting happened. That's going to be a big question.

MARTIN: So, Eric, what in your view is the media getting right in covering this case and where is coverage falling short?

DEGGANS: I guess what I would say has been done right is that we are getting details about the case. We're getting details about George Zimmerman's life, details about Trayvon Martin's life and details about the investigation into what happened between these two men. Unfortunately, what's also happened is that people have a lot of other discussions they want to have. They want to talk about the demonization of young black men, undue suspicion cast on people of color when they're in certain neighborhoods. They want to talk about how the police investigate crimes involving people of color and they're sort of piling all of these issues on top of a very specific incident that people are trying to get to the truth of. And I think sometimes that clouds the issue and makes it hard for us to figure out exactly what's going on.

And now we're to the point where, you know, news outlets are using audio technology to dissect the 911 call that Zimmerman made and they're looking at police video of Zimmerman walking into the police department and trying to dissect that to see if he was injured or not. And we're getting to the point where we're speculating a lot and we're making a lot of assumptions. And what we need right now are hard facts and we need a clear investigation.

MARTIN: TV writer Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times. Thanks so much, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.