On facts and rumor in the Trayvon Martin case

"The whole world is watching Sanford,” Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil-rights activist, told a crowd of nearly 500 at the March 26 gathering in the Sanford, Fla., Civic Center. That’s the truth. Since the fatal shooting of an unarmed Florida teen by a neighborhood watchman on February 26, it has been a hot topic on major news sites and high on the docket in the court of public opinion.

The shooting sparked something in the nation and inspired many to protest, rally and push for police to take the self-defense-claiming shooter into law enforcement custody. Reports assert that on February 26, George Zimmerman, 28, killed Trayvon Martin, 17, in self-defense in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.

If you were listening to Officer Radio—Officer.com’s weekly live online talk radio program focusing on law enforcement issues, trends and hot topics—on March 29, you got a preview of what I have to say about the case. As far as the politicalization of the case, I want no part in that. It’s still early in the investigation and there is a lot to learn before I could form educated, informed opinions based around the facts of the case. But there are two elements of this incident that I would like to address, including the proliferation of false facts and the contention from those who take issue with the case as a center of media attention.

In the reporting aftermath, some of the

facts were sullied, particularly those that relate to Zimmerman’s defense claims and racial identities of the two involved. I’ve read and heard allegations about how this misinformation was fabricated and set in motion, and I have to disagree that there was widespread malice in doing so. Instead, I believe the extension of bad facts is the sum of this formula: A high-profile, hot button case that inspired many people to discuss, plus the Internet. Unchecked tweets, Facebook posts and blogs with bad facts were born and the Internet proliferated them. I don’t intend to be a blogging snob. However, there are many blogs that are not skilled in the method of fact-checking. This has led to the presentation of falsehoods relating to the case and the Internet has done what it does well: spread information. Unfortunately that information in many cases was unvetted. News outfits have been posting briefs on case facts vs. rumors to address some of these frequently botched details (you can keep up with the Orlando Sentinel’s efforts on that end at bit.ly/OSmartinfacts).

I always take caution with the attempt

to extract agenda on the part of other reporters. There are hard news stories and then there is commentary. This is commentary; my personal notes and observations forming my opinion. When I’m reporting on a story, I have no personal agendas I’m trying to deceptively push. I see this type of argument as an excuse to swap gossip. This isn’t me saying I don’t want to “talk out of school” or rock the boat that, as a member of the media, I’m in. Instead my point is that journalists have a responsibility to report on the news and pursue stories that are newsworthy for various reasons, and I believe the passion and heated public opinion alone on the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, among other factors, certainly fit that criteria. To further illustrate my belief that the dispute over mainstream media focusing on the case is really a veil, I offer an image of the alternative: What if the mainstream media had ignored this case, buried it in the news or given it less attention? I believe the contention with media focus would be replaced with an argument and outcry asking why news organizations aren’t giving the story light.

This case is still evolving. I think there’s a lot yet to uncover. One fact that needs no Trojan Horse for discussion: The path to investigating the incident and how it unfolded is a path worth—and in need of—travel.

P.S. Officer Radio, hosted by Officer.com Editor-in-Chief and law enforcement veteran Frank Borelli, is live Thursdays at 1 p.m. Eastern. Listen online live at Officer.com/media-center/radio or hear archived shows on the Officer Radio podcast at toginet.com/shows/OfficerRadio and through iTunes at bit.ly/iTunesOfficerRadio.