You’d be forgiven for, at times this week, believing we had been transported back to the Southern United States during the 1960s. Race relations in the United States are never a simple, harmonious affair, however rarely do things get quite as heated as they are currently, and have been since George Zimmerman was acquitted of the 2nd degree murder of Trayvon Murder.
The racial tension in America currently is palpable. Not since the assault of Rodney King by white police officers in 1991 have things been quite so on edge. However, the question that must be asked, is why? After all, there is hardly a scarcity of cases of gun violence in America. There are, on average, over 10 gun murders every day in the United States, with the propensity of those murdered being African Americans. Why then has this case caused such an outpouring of rage and raw emotion?
The responsibility, and the blame, should and must be laid at the feet of the media.
For the sake of air-time, headlines and drama, they took what in normal circumstances was a cut and dry case of self-defence, and turned it into one of the largest stories of the year; and one dominated by the race question. Here are just some of the ways in which they did it:
1. Selective use of photos: The photos used of both Zimmerman and Martin were chosen very selectively. For Zimmerman, the only photo used in the media available during the days and weeks following the incident was his mug shot, in which it has been noted he looked significantly ‘whiter’ than he does in reality (he is in fact Latino). On the other hand, the photo used of Martin was one of him as a young, sweet looking child (when in reality he was a large 17 year old teenager). This was an attempt to create the impression, which for many people has not gone away, that a white man shot a black child, which is a far better and more sellable headline than Latino man shoots 17 year old black man.
2. Non-use of Zimmerman assault photo: this is tied to the last point, but it is such an obvious and intentional oversight from the media that in needs reiteration. In the days following the shooting, photos were released of Zimmerman’s face and head, which clearly show that he had received a serious assault at the hands of Martin. However, because these photos would have changed the immensely sellable narrative and raised questions about whether Zimmerman may have in fact been defending himself, it received virtually no circulation in the media.
3. Distorting Language: This point mainly has to do with the constant referral to the estate Zimmerman was guarding as a “gated community”. This language was chosen to give and reinforce the idea that this was the case of a rich, white man who didn’t trust a black child walking through his neighbourhood, and as such followed and eventually shot him. (Zimmerman’s estate was in reality a perfectly average American estate and one that would rarely be defined as a gated community.)
This is merely the throat clearing of what is a disgracefully long incitement against the media and before even raising the fact that NBC are currently defending themselves in court against the charge that they doctored the 911 call made by Zimmerman to make it appear as if clear racial profiling had taken place. They will almost certainly offer a settlement and this is not the only case being taken against people who attempted, and succeeded, in slandering Zimmerman’s name and turning public opinion largely against him.
Alan Dershowitz commented in the days following the verdict that, if politics and public opinion did not play such an influential role in the American justice system, the overwhelming likelihood is that this case would never have made it to trial. It was shrouded in reasonable doubt, and what evidence there was suggested that, whatever else happened that night, the initial violent act was carried out by Trayvon Martin.
This case has raised some serious questions, firstly about the media, the lengths it will go to in order to sell a narrative and its almost complete failure to engage its critical faculties. However, though it may not be as appealing, questions must be raised about the nature of public opinion and how it far too often operates with a mob mentality, willing to ignore the calls for fairness and justice in favour of straight up retribution.