You already know the basic facts: Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old high school junior, was shot and killed on Feb. 26 by a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, in Sanford, Florida.
That’s pretty much where agreement on the facts ends.
Did Zimmerman stalk Martin, or did Martin attack him? Did Zimmerman shoot Martin because Trayvon was black, or did he shoot him out of self defense? Whose scream for help is on the 911 tape? Did the Sanford Police Department conduct a proper investigation, or did it hide behind the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law for racist reasons? Have news media purposely slanted their reports either for or against Martin, or are they simply trying their best to cover an evolving story of great public interest? And on and on….
Personally, I’m optimistic that the wheat and the chaff of this incident will be sifted eventually, and we’ll have a clear understanding of what really happened that night.
But by then, will it matter?
In this era of instant news and intense media competition, coupled with people’s fascination with the case and ability to broadcast their own conclusions across the Internet, we’re met with a cacophony of opinions and “facts” that will continue to confuse the issue, perhaps forever.
Many lessons will be learned from this tragedy—and it is indeed a tragedy, regardless of where one stands on the guilt or innocence of either Martin or Zimmerman.
For communications professionals, it’s a lesson in how quickly a story, particularly a horrendous one like this, can be interpreted, re-interpreted, even co-opted and owned by others. Being clear, deliberate, consistent, quick and responsive are the best investments in helping keep the facts straight.
For the loved ones of those involved, it’s a lesson in how life can, in an instant, become an endless nightmare.