First it was the hoodie. Now photographs used in the media's coverage of the Trayvon Martin killing are the subject of widespread debate, as supporters of both the slain 17-year-old African-American and the shooter, George Zimmerman, say selectivity by some news outlets in which photos they use is proof of bias.
"Since the controversy began," Jeff Weiner wrote in the Orlando Sentinel, "some bloggers and many website commenters have questioned why the primary images of Trayvon in the media have shown him younger than he was when he was killed at age 17."
The initial image of Martin—released by his family and widely used by media outlets covering the racially charged case—appears to show him at a younger age.
On Wednesday, the website Business Insider came under fire for posting a pair of what it claimed were more recent photos of Martin. The site later removed the photos after it was revealed that one, taken from a neo-Nazi website, was not Martin.
A second, purportedly showing Martin with what appear to be gold teeth, was thought to be taken from Martin's now-closed Twitter account. Numerous media outlets, including the Drudge Report and Yahoo News, used the photo in coverage of the case.
The Daily Caller published the same photo along with 152 pages of what the site claims were Martin's tweets. (If they were, the Twitter messages prove that Martin was a pretty typical high school male, preoccupied with girls, sex and getting out of class early.)
"Our readers, and most Americans, are keenly interested in the personalities and character of the two men involved in the altercation in Sanford, Fla.," Daily Caller executive editor David Martosko, wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "This information, which was in the public domain for months before the Twitter account was disabled, fills in some of that information. We chose that photo of Trayvon Martin because it was the picture he chose to represent himself on Twitter—and also because, unlike the years-old photos of Martin that are accompanying most media reports, it represented what he looked like nearer to the end of his life."
Zimmerman's supporters say that the media's insistence on running photos of a younger Martin juxtaposed with a mug shot of the neighborhood watchman from a previous arrest is part of a predetermined narrative news outlets are presenting: a young, unarmed, innocent black kid, shot and killed by Zimmerman, a white, wannabe cop who disregarded a dispatcher's warning not to follow Martin. (Zimmerman is Hispanic.)
Twitchy, a new website recently launched by conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, ran the same purported photo of Martin that Business Insider erroneously published alongside a photo of a smiling Zimmerman. ("Nothing says fair like putting a mug shot looking photo in 'county orange' next to a 5 year old picture of the victim," a note on Twitchy read. "But hey, two can play at that game.")
Malkin's site later apologized: "The photo on the right is not of the Trayvon Martin who was shot by Zimmerman. We apologize to our readers and to the Martin family."
Like it or not, the images of the victim and the shooter have become as important in the court of public opinion as the facts.
"I think it's fundamentally an issue of accuracy," Kenny Irby, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, told the Sentinel. The grill, shown in the image of Martin purportedly taken from his Twitter account, is part of the "bad boy image" Zimmerman's supporters want the media to circulate, because it would bolster Zimmerman's claim that he acted in self-defense on the night of Feb. 26.
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"This has been a big part of how American society sees young black men," Irby continued. "All of these images have assumptions."
"Here is where the media circus takes a decidedly ugly turn," Eric Deggans wrote on the Times' Feed blog. "Supporters of shooter George Zimmerman—including some conservative websites—are weighing in with attempts to turn Martin's image from innocent kid to dangerous thug."
On CNN, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony was asked about the escalating war over images in the case. "They talk about only bad guys, gangsters and thugs wear hoodies and dress like that," Anthony said. "But if you look at history, thugs dressed in suits, gangsters are dressed in suits."
"Martin's killing has become a tug-of-war between those who see his case as an example of the dangers of racial profiling and those who contend liberal activists have hijacked the process for their own ends," Deggans added. "Even if Martin dabbled in drugs, carried himself like a gangsta and wore tattoos, did Zimmerman have the legal right to kill him that night?"
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