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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
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Panel examines media's role in Trayvon Martin case


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ORLANDO - The media made a multitude of mistakes in covering the high-profile prosecution of George Zimmerman in the death of teenager Trayvon Martin, some Central Florida civic leaders said Thursday during a panel discussion organized for the state's news editors.

The criticism ran the gamut, from the photos of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman that were published soon after Martin's shooting death to the initial failure of the media to treat the case as a significant story.

It didn't gain wide attention until Martin's mother began calling for Zimmerman's arrest and the media picked up on suggestions that it was a case of racial profiling.

"It was just another black boy dead in Sanford, and it was not an important story," said Francis Oliver, Curator Goldsboro Historical Museum in Sanford, which displays the area's black heritage. "It was not an important story until Tracy Martin pushed it."

Orlando Sentinel breaking news editor Michelle Guido acknowledged that the paper didn't devote much coverage to the case immediately after the Martin's death, having little initial information on the shooting in a region where shootings are not uncommon.

"It sounds weird in the context of something that's become so huge, but the initial story, that is a story that we see every day. I'm sure we've got one today," she said.

The discussion took place during the annual Florida Press Association/Florida Society of News Editors convention. It was scheduled before Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges Saturday.

Once the shooting did gain attention, the media generated more outrage by putting a photo of a 13- or 14-year-old Martin next to an old mug shot of Zimmerman, making it seem unbelievable that a menacing looking Zimmerman could have been in fear of his life from a boyish looking Martin, said Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte.

"People that saw that around the world saw that as Trayvon and saw that as George Zimmerman, and you're telling me that that little kid was beating up that other guy so bad that he felt in threat of his life and he shot and killed him, and your police department after talking to George Zimmerman said, 'OK, you're free to go!"' Bonaparte said. "I thought that was an injustice in the sense of that wasn't accurate reporting."

Central Florida Urban League President Allie Braswell said the media made mistakes throughout the case, ranging from confused reports on Zimmerman's ethnicity to predictions of violent protests once the jury reached its verdict. He urged the media to take a step back and make sure what they report is accurate because in cases like this they shape public opinion.

"You start to influence people who later become (jurors)" he said.

Guido, the only journalist on the panel, pointed out that the media is not homogenous. She said that although her newspaper occasionally made mistakes, one of the things she was most proud of was a series of stories pointing out to readers what was true and what wasn't among the things said about the case.

"We took a step back every couple of weeks in the beginning and we said, 'What are the ridiculous rumors that are going around out there?"' she said.

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