When a big, local story breaks, regional newspapers have the opportunity to own it. The killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in an Orlando suburb is nothing if not big. How has the Orlando Sentinel handled it?
Reporting on the shooting began with a print story on February
29th, three 28th, two days after the event, and that article went online the next day under the headline: “Boy, 17, shot to death in Sanford during ‘altercation,’ police say.” Like media outlets across the country, the Sentinel didn’t do another story until Martin’s father made a statement, which the paper covered on March 8th, with “Dad: arrest crime watch volunteer who killed my son.” The 171,000-circulation daily then raised the coverage level, and by March 15th, the Sentinel was publishing multiple stories a day. That quantity has since moved into double digits. On March 28th alone there were over ten stories written, and that’s not counting articles from The Associated Press or opinion columns.
In an interview, John Cutter, associate editor for the Sentinel, says one of the ways the paper has advanced the story is by getting the details of what the shooter—28-year-old George Zimmerman—had recounted about the incident to police. The story, “Police: Zimmerman says Trayvon decked him with one blow then began hammering his head,” was written by Rene Stutzman, the Sentinel’s crime reporter. She’s been covering the Trayvon story a lot for the paper, and was on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC program earlier this week, where O’Donnell brought up the above story, and accused her of reporting Zimmerman’s account to police as fact, “without attribution.” Stutzman never really gets a chance to respond—O’Donnell cuts her off multiple times—but she did say she “disagrees,” and says “I think the story is fair and accurate.” The Daily Kos, among others, had an item accusing Stutzman of helping “the Sanford Police do a Cover Up.”
Cutter says he was surprised at the negative buzz around this piece. He saw the first version, which was posted in the morning, and felt the sourcing was “very clear” in that it said “according to police” up high, and then went a few paragraphs before stating the attribution again. “That’s a long-standing thing we do when were trying not to use attribution in every graph,” he said. He says the paper expected to be challenged on this particular story. “We thought we’d possibly be asked, ‘why do you think this person is telling the truth,’” says Cutter. “I know the source, and I was confident that everyone would read this as what the police were saying they were told.”
Cutter says another contribution the paper has made in reporting this case is correcting misinformation that’s been spreading. Indeed, one of Stutzman’s posts, “Trayvon rumors abound, but here are the facts,” addresses false claims that have been circulating about the investigation. Stutzman sources police and a medical examiner in the piece, and though none of her sources are named, it’s the kind of local reporting that’s so necessary in a national, viral story like this one. Stutzman’s rumor’s piece addresses false accusations that the medical examiner refused to release Martin’s body for an unusual length of time; that police neglected to collect key evidence, namely Zimmerman’s clothing; and that Zimmerman wasn’t arrested because he’s related to someone on the police force. Each claim is deflated with reasons from official sources on why these perceptions are false, an important contribution in driving the story closer to the truth.
But the piece also shows the paper’s propensity for according-to-police type reporting. One point that Stutzman attempts to address in the piece with a brief law explainer is more a matter of opinion than rumor. This subhead reads, “Police should have simply arrested Zimmerman and let a judge sort it out.” She goes on to explain why this is a misconception:
Zimmerman has not been arrested because he told police he acted in self-defense, and then-Chief Lee said police did not have probable cause. Florida Statute 776.032 expressly prohibits police from arresting someone who had a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm. Police may investigate, the statute says, “but the agency may not arrest the person” without probable cause.
But the question behind this “rumor” is at the heart of the story: Why was self-defense deemed a sufficient explanation in the shooting of an unarmed teenager? The determination of probable cause is a complex subject that cannot be dismissed as cut and dried.