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Media, public should use restraint with tragic events

July 24, 2013

No one’s interest is served when criminal proceedings cross the line into entertainment. Yet, starting with O.J. Simpson, trials have been tantamount to guaranteed ratings for cable television networks, which have shown little self-restraint in spinning somber facts into salacious gabfests.

There can be little doubt of TV-media influence. The trial of Mob boss Whitey Bulger probably has far more pure entertainment value than the sad case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, yet it has failed to dominate the nightly news, probably because cameras are not permitted in federal court.

That said, we do not argue with coverage of the Zimmerman trial, specifically because so many important issues were in play.

With the election of Barack Obama, many of us have been tempted to put racial conflict in the rearview mirror. How can America have a deep vein of racism running through it if it elects a black leader?

Without knowing Zimmerman’s heart, we cannot know whether race played any role in Martin’s death. But we feel fairly safe in saying that if, instead of a black male wearing a hoodie, Zimmerman had crossed paths with a white woman wearing a business suit, we would not be having this discussion.

For all our gains, America still has work to do when it comes to race. These are issues that the press rightly investigated in the Zimmerman trial. And it is valuable that the American public was able to explore these issues, too.

More important, the American public got to see the result of states that pass sloppy, overreaching laws. After viewing this trial, it would be hard for all but the most dedicated gunslingers to conclude that the “Stand Your Ground” laws passed by Florida and other states are not seriously flawed.

Under this law, anyone with a grudge can goad an innocent person into taking a swing at him, at which point it becomes OK to start shooting. Zimmerman defenders might ask themselves this: Would it have been fair for a black kid to have poked George Zimmerman in the ribs with a stick while Zimmerman was patrolling the neighborhood — and then to have shot Zimmerman to death had he retaliated?

These are serious issues in the courtroom, and they are serious issues in life that it is the duty of the media to report to the American people. By contrast, the wholly sensationalized trials of individuals such as Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias and their ilk offer little value other than to titillate the public for no real societal advancement.

It is up to both the media and the public to use proper restraint when considering tragic events that leave people dead. The media have clearly gone overboard in trials that make dark celebrities out of many of those on trial, and for little reason other than to air dirty laundry.

However, we believe in the case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, those who disseminate the news were right to focus acutely on this case. In coverage of the case, the media made missteps, but there’s no doubt that the case merited a national spotlight.

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