COLUMN: Media needs to keep opinions out of their news reporting
Like many of us, I thought I had heard every last word about the Trayvon Martin killing. The events that led to the shooting, the reaction of the community and the personal lives of both Martin and his shooter, George Zimmerman, have been examined exhaustively by the national and local media and subjected to the full spectrum of political and personal opinions.
I’m ready for a trial and, hopefully, some closure for the Martin family. For the most part, I’m done reading about the whole thing until something new happens.
Or so I thought.
I was unprepared when I saw a photograph of the paper shooting target produced by the Hiller Armament Company of Virginia — so unprepared that I momentarily lost control of my “inside voice” and spoiled a perfectly cordial lunch with a string of outraged profanity.
The target is a black silhouette on a white background, depicting a person wearing a hooded sweatshirt holding an iced tea with Skittles protruding from a front pocket. Obviously, this is meant to be Trayvon Martin on a shooting target meant for a gun range.
It would be an understatement to say that I find this revolting. Even more revolting, as I show people the image of the target, I’m met with laughter as often as disgust. I try not to recoil too much when someone sees the picture and laughs. I just have ask, “How is this funny?”
I come inevitably to the conclusion that the shrugging answer to the previous question is the result of desensitization. Chefs don’t feel heat, smokers don’t smell each other and apparently constant bombardment by the national news media causes sociopathic behavior by making human beings into talking points. Martin stops being a dead teenager and becomes a symbol to both sides of the predictable partisan divide.
The media’s response to the police reaction of not arresting Zimmerman began a political back-and-forth that removed the humanity from the equation and turned both the victim and the shooter into two-dimensional caricatures. Martin was neither a thug nor an angel; he was 17 years old. Think back to your own 17th year — it tends to be a rough one.
Zimmerman is neither a murderer nor a victim. He’s a guy who instigated a fight, started losing and pulled a gun. There are many names for a person who does this, but not murderer, not victim. Martin is not a symbol, but a kid whose death reminds me not to be confrontational with strangers because I might get shot.
For another example, in January 2011, Jared Lee Loughner shot 19 people, wounding 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and killed six using a “high-capacity magazine” in his 9mm pistol. He fired 30 rounds before stopping to reload, when he was subdued and disarmed by members of the crowd at a public speaking event for Giffords. The event, an undeniable tragedy, inevitably became a debate about whether the Second Amendment included the right to bear arms that hold 33 bullets and fit in your jacket pocket.
By May, I was reading a story about a gun enthusiast named Nick Leghorn, who was doing an experiment to try to determine what went wrong, not in terms of Loughner’s mental health but his inability to reload the 32-round magazine before someone stopped him. The implication is that Loughner should have been able to shoot more people, and the purpose of Leghorn’s experiment is to prevent the next Loughner from having the same problem.
Six dead people — including a 9-year-old girl — and 13 wounded — including Giffords — and this is the reaction from some people? Why couldn’t he reload fast enough?
I don’t blame these people who make Martin targets and run reload experiments for being ideologically stunted. Most of them probably haven’t been exposed to much reality for the last decade or two, as most of them probably watch the same news channel every morning and night.
By dividing the media into rigid categories of “conservative” and “liberal,” we have changed the function and meaning of “the news” by forcing it to align with what is, in reality, strictly opinion. The closest thing now to traditional notions of the press are fact-checking websites like PolitiFact.com and rogue online publications like WikiLeaks, whose sole purpose is to provide actual truths.
Major news networks today have no interest whatsoever in reporting facts unless those facts fit nicely with their chosen political narrative. I find it outrageous that the 10-o’clock news has been replaced by Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow.
While I’m more likely to agree with Maddow’s opinions based on my political positions, I don’t confuse them with facts. For facts, I have to go to PolitiFact after “The Daily Show” and see what actually happened.
When we substitute opinion for information, that’s how we lose the middle ground of informed opinion.
Trent Cason is a literature and cultural studies senior.