Skip to main content

When racial clichés drive murder stories

By Eric Deggans, Special to CNN
updated 8:10 AM EDT, Mon August 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Deggans: Lane, Martin killings being compared to make points about race
  • Races of some in both cases were misreported, false images posted online
  • Deggans: The errors fit into preconceived racial notions when real story is more complex
  • Cherry-picking facts, jumping to conclusions inflames more hatred, he writes

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." 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.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans

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.

Random killings spark laments, but reality shows long slide in crime

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.

LZ Granderson: Negligent parents, lawbreaking kids

Racial questions in the 'boredom' killing
Ebony Magazine: 'We are Trayvon'
Was Oklahoma's killing a gang initiation?
911 dispatcher accused of slow response

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.

That person was not the dead teen Trayvon Martin, but a different young black man. About a year later, Zimmerman's defense team released images taken from Martin's cellphone which did show him shirtless, making a similar gesture to the camera, but it's tough to know what that revealed other than a teen with a typical rebellious streak.

Still, an unspoken argument seems to be wrapped up in these stories. It's the conflict over institutional prejudice and racism.

In the Trayvon Martin case, police knew who killed the teen and resisted arresting him for 44 days. That fueled concerns that laws such as Florida's stand your ground legislation were making it easier to profile and kill African-Americans. That seems a long way from a presumed thrill killing in which suspects were arrested within days, saying they shot Lane because they were "bored."

Teen arrested in beating death of WWII vet

Even news that one of the teens involved in Lane's murder posted anti-white statements on Twitter months ago seems a different point. But some media outlets, committed to the idea that American institutions such as the criminal justice system are mostly fair, have focused on more personal explanations for such tragedies, emphasizing the criminality of some black people in ways that evoke old stereotypes about people of color and crime.

It seems obvious that real-life incidents rarely fit neat categories and the need to explain senseless deaths can lead to a lot of jumped-to conclusions.

But if the Chris Lane and Trayvon Martin cases teach anything, it's that cherry-picking facts to fit a preconceived narrative can be a road to inaccuracy and unfairness.

Here's hoping somebody is taking time to soak up the lesson.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Deggans.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT