Trayvon Martin Case: The Power of Message Manipulation

edit (7-24-13):  A good survey that is sourced and brings up many facts that were underreported or simply ignored.


An African-American boy was walking home from a convenient store with Skittles, wearing a hoodie in a gated community.  An overzealous, white volunteer watchman, who was a wannabe cop and has a criminal history, thought he was up to no good and decided to follow him.  The white man tagged the boy as “black” to the police dispatcher he called and eventually got out of his car to follow the boy against the dispatcher’s advice, and he was also heard muttering how he’s sick of hoodlums and thugs getting away.  A fight eventually ensued, and the white man pulled out his concealed weapon and shot the teenager, who died.  The police investigation may have screwed up some evidence gathering, and after questioning, they decide to let the white man just go home.

These are the two people in this tragic scenario:

Makes you mad, right?  How can this country allow such blatant racial injustice against this kid who had no criminal history of his own?  Obviously, this shows that Florida’s laws are backward and that racism continues to plague our justice system and our police forces.

But then let’s describe this scenario in a way that others have:

A volunteer neighborhood watchman, who has a wife and a full-time job, saw a suspicious looking young man in the gated community he is watching.  The tall, athletic-looking young man looked up to no good, so the half-Peruvian watchman followed him and called 9-1-1, and the operator asked him to describe the ethnicity of the man he was following, and he responded by saying that the man was black.  Even though the dispatcher told him that he did not need to follow the young man on foot, he did so anyway in order to keep tabs on the young man’s whereabouts for the police.  A fight ensued and, in the fight, the watchman pulled a gun and shot the young man after sustaining several wounds.  The police questioned him but ultimately saw no evidence to charge him, so they let the watchman go.  Later evidence would reveal that Martin referred to his follower as a “creepy a** cracker.”

These are the players in this scenario:

Does that make you as angry?  Probably not.  It might even make you feel like the watchman was completely justified in what he did; I mean, it’s his job to watch out for the neighborhood, and he has very right to defend himself.  And since he’s half-Hispanic, there is less racial tension at first glance, especially since he was merely answering the 9-1-1 operator’s question about the young man’s race.

For those following the Trayvon Martin case, the majority of media coverage has most likely been of the former flavor, and the result has been much anger from minority groups, protests, comments from celebrities, etc.  In reaction, there are some who champion something like the latter version and defend George Zimmerman’s right to defend himself against someone he thought was dangerous.  In reality, things are much more complicated than that, especially considering how little we can possibly know about what happened.

I have no idea whether or not Zimmerman is actually innocent; only he and God know that for certain now, and acquittal on charges does not necessarily mean that he’s innocent but merely that the state did not present enough evidence to convict him beyond reasonable doubt.  However, what I do know is that the way vultures in the media and in politics flocked to this story was pretty distasteful, obviously looking for political points or for increasing controversy to gain viewership.

Perhaps the most blatant example of this was NBC news, who actually edited the 9-1-1 recordings to make it sound like Zimmerman volunteered that Martin was a black male as opposed to merely answering a question.  NBC apologized for this but not on air.  Other news outlets often downplayed the fact that Zimmerman identified as a Hispanic, and the pictures they often used were of Martin when he was much younger and not as a physically developing young man around the neighborhood of 6’0 tall.  They also largely failed to report that Martin had had some trouble at school, getting suspended officially for graffiti and drugs but also having burglary tools and women’s jewelry in his possession.  Instead, they continued the angle that Martin did not have a criminal record and was just a good kid.  The aim was clear:  Make this story about racial profiling from the white majority.  It succeeded, as a story that would probably never make national news blew up in the country’s collective conscience.

This is not to say that the other side is completely innocent.  Others started to emphasize the “thug” image and make him out to be a very dangerous, violent teen who attacked Zimmerman (causing the head wounds).  The biggest example of this is probably Fox News analyst Geraldo Rivera who said he would bet that any of the six female jurors, placed in the same situation, would have recognized the danger posed by Martin and shot him way sooner than Zimmerman did.  I’ve often critiqued people’s criticisms of Fox News because it’s often just liberal parroting, but let’s just say that didn’t help them one bit.

What we see here is simply message manipulation:  You may tell the same story, but if you slant the information a certain way or even leave out things altogether, you can subtly tell a message that you want and try to get a reaction that you want.  News outlets may not be doing this with malicious intent, as if they’re rubbing their hands together and cackling to themselves, but no news outlet is unbiased, and they all want to gain viewers and ratings.  It was all pretty irresponsible and silly.  It’s just bad journalism to largely ignore the troubled history of Trayvon Martin and paint him as some angelic kid.  It’s bad form to edit recordings in order to emphasize race, downplay the fact that Martin himself referred to Zimmerman as a “cracker,” and ignore that the FBI investigated Zimmerman and, whatever his other troubles with the law might have been, found no evidence that he was a racist.  On the other side, it’s not cool to just try to post unflattering pictures of Martin and make it sound like it’s a crime to wear a hoodie at night.  I don’t care what race you are and what you think about this case, that’s just not right, and people should do a much better job with thinking critically about what they get from the media.  Unfortunately, most people don’t, as evidenced by the comments section of many news articles.  I wouldn’t recommend reading them unless you just want to marvel at the sheer emotional stupidity of the human race, but if you do, you’ll see some blatantly racist comments from both sides against whites and blacks.

It seems to me that this case never should have been tried; as the local prosecutor and the police chief saw, there was just not enough evidence to convict anyone.  However, due to the public outcry (which, as I talked about, came largely from how the media portrayed the story), the police chief was fired and the prosecutor was replaced, only to cause a circus that ended up in acquittal anyway as it became painfully obvious that they could not prove second-degree murder beyond reasonable doubt (they most likely overcharged him and probably should have just stuck with the manslaughter charge if they were going to try this at all).  Now we have a bunch of angry people who have preconceived notions about what happened, convinced of the “facts” of the case well before all the facts even came out due to whatever slant the media source of their choice chose to use.  A young man is dead in a confrontation where it seems both parties made bad choices, but now this tragedy is less about that and more about people spewing their racial and political anger.

Good job, media.  You got what you wanted.  Just know that it’s a load of crap.


2 thoughts on “Trayvon Martin Case: The Power of Message Manipulation

  1. Pingback: The Ferguson Riots: Another Disastrous Event Brought On By Race-Baiting, Emotional First Impressions, and Irrationality | leesomniac

  2. Pingback: Police Shootings, Emotional Accusations, and the Standard of Beyond Reasonable Doubt | leesomniac

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