When you don’t want the whole truth: Witnesses sometimes swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
As a journalistic matter, the whole truth can be overrated. Consider this chunk of an AP news report about the impending trial of George Zimmerman.
Mike Schneider did the reporting, one part of which is just wrong:
SCHNEIDER (6/10/13): The Feb. 26, 2012, confrontation began when Zimmerman spotted Martin, whom he did not recognize, walking in the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated townhome community where Zimmerman lived and the fiancee of Martin's father also resided. There had been a rash of recent break-ins at the Retreat, and Zimmerman was wary of strangers walking through the complex. He was well-known to police dispatchers for his regular calls reporting suspicious people and events.Oof. Plainly, Schneider conveys the impression that Zimmerman disobeyed that police dispatcher at some point and in some manner. It sounds like the dispatcher told Zimmerman not to get out of his vehicle.
Martin was walking back from a convenience store after buying ice tea and Skittles. It was raining, and he was wearing a hoodie.
Zimmerman called 911, got out of his vehicle and followed Martin behind the townhomes despite being told not to by a police dispatcher. "These a------s, they always get away," Zimmerman said on the call. Zimmerman, who had a concealed weapons permit, was armed.
The two then got into a struggle. Zimmerman told police he had lost sight of Martin, and that Martin circled back and attacked him as he walked back to his truck. Prosecutors say he tracked down Martin and started the fight.
Plainly, that last claim isn’t true. Zimmerman was already out of his truck and following Trayvon Martin when the dispatcher made the statement in question.
The AP’s error doesn’t end there. Schneider’s presentation implies that, at the very least, Zimmerman kept following Martin after being told not to do so. But as Lizette Alvarez explained in Sunday’s New York Times, that is one of the factual disputes which lies at the heart of the trial:
ALVAREZ (6/9/13): The basic story, by now, is familiar. Mr. Zimmerman was in his car in his gated community when he spotted Mr. Martin walking. Mr. Zimmerman became suspicious. He called the police nonemergency line, as he had done numerous times before to report things like a stray dog and an open garage door.Perhaps Alvarexzs was being ironic when she said, “The basic story, by now, is familiar.” As everyone knows, several versions of the basic story are familiar by now, depending on who you’ve been listening to and who you watch on cable.
“This guy looks like he’s up to no good,” he told the dispatcher. The dispatcher asked him about the man’s whereabouts. Mr. Zimmerman got out of the car and followed in Mr. Martin’s direction. The dispatcher said it was not necessary—“we don’t need you to do that”—and Mr. Zimmerman said, “O.K.”
Prosecutors will argue that Mr. Zimmerman disobeyed the police and deliberately pursued Mr. Martin, provoking the confrontation. The defense will argue that Mr. Zimmerman was headed back to his car when Mr. Martin accosted him. Neighbors heard cries for help but saw next to nothing in the darkness.
Might we note one other point about that AP report? The fact that Martin had purchased a package of Skittles really isn’t a relevant fact in this trial.
The fact that Martin was unarmed is an obvious relevant fact. The Skittles are mentioned a) by thoroughly hopeless journalists or b) by people who want to engage in the pathos which animates one of the versions of this story which is “familiar by now.”
Beyond that, should Schneider have mentioned what Martin was wearing? That too is a basic part of one version of this story. But here again, the relevance of the now-famous hoodie is a point of dispute.
Over at the Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart can’t complete a paragraph about this matter without citing the Skittles. This fact has been clear for some time.
Martin did buy a pack of Skittles on that tragic day. But the Skittles really aren’t part of the story. They are part of the pathos one group of observers wants you to feel when you consider what happened.
A pack of Skittles was purchased that day. In that sense, the Skittles can be said to be part of the “the whole truth.”
The Skittles are part of the whole truth. Journalists are expected to know which parts of the truth to omit.
The nature of bad reporting: Remarkably, Schneider mentions the Skittles and the hoodie, but never explicitly states the fact that Martin was unarmed.
Midway through his report, he quotes the Martin family attorney saying that Martin was unarmed. Schneider never reports this basic fact in his own voice.