Truth takes a hit when racial clichés drive the story
8/25/2013, 12:57 p.m.
Editor's note: Eric Deggans is joining National Public Radio as TV critic after many years as TV and media critic at the Tampa Bay Times. He is the author of "Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation." Deggans is guest-hosting "Reliable Sources" on Sunday at 11 a.m. ET. Follow him on Twitter @Deggans
(CNN) - As scores of people head to the National Mall this week commemorating 50 years since the March on Washington, some corners of the media are still featuring passionate debate over whether African-Americans have ignored "a culture of violence" in their midst.
The finger pointing this time comes after the senseless killing of Australian baseball player and college student Christopher Lane, shot dead August 16 while jogging on a street in Duncan, Oklahoma.
From the moment three teenagers were arrested in the crime -- first misidentified as three black youths, later found to be two African-Americans and one white guy -- some media outlets tried to draw comparisons to the killing last year of black teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman.
But if Lane's death has anything in common with Martin's -- besides the sad fact that both killings seemed avoidable and were possibly committed by people of a different race from the victim's -- it's the sometimes sloppy reporting used to make points about race that deserve subtler, more precise treatment.
In the early days of reporting on Martin's death, Zimmerman was identified as white because police in Sanford, Florida, listed him that way on the incident report. Those early reports about a white man killing an unarmed black teen fit an easy black-and-white narrative about racial profiling in America, while the truth was that Zimmerman identified as Hispanic, but still could have profiled Martin.
Similarly, CNN aired a report suggesting that Zimmerman might have used a racial slur to describe Martin during his 911 call to police just before the shooting. But later, CNN aired another story with a different audio analyst who disputed that conclusion, and no allegations of a racial slur on the call surfaced at his trial.
This past week, Fox News Channel's "Fox and Friends" and The Daily Caller website both reported the three teens who killed Lane were black. The Daily Caller also published a photo featuring a different, dark-skinned black youth identified as Michael Jones, the white teenager police believe drove the car during the shooting.
Both outlets also criticized President Obama and activists such as the Rev. Al Sharpton for not making an issue of Lane's death in the way they spoke on Martin's killing.
The mistake with Jones' photo recalls a similar error made as some media outlets began publishing material reportedly discovered on Trayvon Martin's closed social media accounts, in an attempt to show he wasn't the innocent teen his family and supporters described.
Both Twitchy.com and Business Insider published photos of a shirtless, young black man facing the camera and providing a middle finger salute with both hands, identifying him as Trayvon.