No bias in Zimmerman trial headline

The complainant, Jon Melanson, thought that referring to the prosecution’s case and not the defense’s showed bias in CBC News coverage of the George Zimmerman trial in the Trayvon Martin case. The stories were balanced, and the news coverage over the period of the trial and its aftermath represented a range of views. There was no bias in the coverage.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about the headline on a story that appeared on the morning of the first day of the George Zimmerman murder trial. “Why is the CBC, again, taking sides (against the gun owner, of course), with its headlines?” you asked. The headline in question read “Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin ‘because he wanted to.’” The words were actually spoken by the prosecutor as he opened the trial of George Zimmerman of second degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin. You thought a more balanced, appropriate headline would have been “Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in ‘self-defence.’”

George Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted in this high profile and controversial case. Zimmerman shot Martin after he spotted him walking in the gated townhouse community where Zimmerman was living. There was a struggle, and Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defence. The prosecution portrayed it as an act of vigilantism. The case drew international attention because it took 44 days for charges to be laid. It also touched a nerve about race relations in the United States because Martin was Black and Zimmerman is white.

CBC News online covered the story through many iterations throughout the day, when the prosecution and defence presented their cases. The final version featured a headline that said: “Zimmerman portrayed as vigilante in Trayvon Martin shooting.” When the Senior Director of Digital Media, Marissa Nelson, responded to you and pointed out the changed headline, you dismissed it as equally biased:

“And did your 'new' headline mirror emphatically the defence's statement of facts? Of course not. That would not align with the CBC's prejudiced narrative; that Zimmerman is guilty. Your headline supported only one preconception; that of the prosecutor. A more balanced headline would read:

‘Zimmerman viciously attacked by Martin; fired in self-defence’

The politically correct CBC failed to fairly report this story.”

You asked me to conduct a review.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Senior Director of Digital Media, Marissa Nelson, apologized for the delay in responding to your complaint about the story, first published June 24, 2013. She explained the headline was a reflection of what the prosecutor said in his opening remarks. It featured in the headline because it contained the newest information:

As I wrote to you in July following a similar complaint about a headline, in the speeded up news cycle these days, readers expect to find up-to-the-minute information on the stories they are interested in. To meet that expectation, CBCNews.ca regularly updates developing stories with new information as it becomes available. That is why earlier versions included a headline about what the prosecution said; subsequent versions included headlines reflecting the words of the defence.”

She added that later in the morning, after the defence lawyer had laid out his version of events, that Zimmerman shot Martin in self defense, those views were reported in the story and the headline changed to reflect it as well. She added: “In fact the story was revised, re-written or had new information added 39 times. A number of those revisions included a new headline reflecting the latest information.”

The issue at hand was not bias, Ms. Nelson said, but the reflection of a developing story, reported throughout the day.

REVIEW

As I mentioned in a previous complaint of yours about headlines, they serve a particular function – and that is to convey enough information in an engaging way so that a reader will continue to read the article. The headlines must fall within journalistic policy – they must be accurate, and reflect balance and fairness over time:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.”

Online stories go through various iterations and are updated regularly. In the case of this story, created on the opening of the day of the trial, there seems to have been four versions of the headline, although the story was revised many more times.

The first was “Zimmerman trial opens into Trayvon Martin Case.” It was written before proceedings had gotten under way, setting up what was going to happen that day.

It was altered the first time when the prosecutor began his case, to reflect, as Ms. Nelson explained, the newest information. That was the headline you objected to: “Zimmerman shot Martin ‘because he wanted to.’” The headline is not editorializing. The contentious words are in quotes, denoting they are being said by someone else. It would be clearer if there were some more direct attribution, but using the headline, which is accurate and timely, is in no way a violation of policy.

There was a third version: “Zimmerman Trayvon Martin Murder Trial,” and finally a headline that read “Zimmerman portrayed as vigilante in Trayvon Martin Murder Case.”

All the headlines are accurate, and all the stories presenting the case made by both prosecution and defense are fairly and accurately represented. To ask headline writers to come up with some kind of equivalence, to write to ensure that headlines reflect a range of views, rather than set up the story, is not realistic or practical. Clearly language should be even handed, and when it is not, it should be attributed. More importantly, the coverage of the trial, on that day and throughout the proceedings, presented both the prosecution and defence cases, and featured the range of perspectives and views on the verdict, and the broader implications for American society. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman