Skip to main content

When racial clichés drive murder stories

By Eric Deggans, Special to CNN
August 26, 2013 -- Updated 1210 GMT (2010 HKT)
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
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT