Why did PBS call George Zimmerman ‘white’?

April 11, 2012

How to describe this man? (AP)

Now, another strange episode highlighted by NewsBusters: In a Monday PBS NewsHour piece on the Martin case, host Gwen Ifill described George Zimmerman as “white.” That description came in the midst of a segment discussing the impact of the case on “stand your ground” laws. Here’s the context:

Martin, who was black, was on his way to a convenience store in a mostly white gated community when George Zimmerman, who is white, shot and killed him after a disputed altercation. Martin, who was carrying only candy and a soft drink, was discovered by police lying face down in the grass. Zimmerman was briefly taken into custody, but has not been arrested.

Zimmerman has a white father and a Latina mother. Some news organizations, accordingly, have taken to referring to him as an Hispanic and often include the details of his racial makeup. But calling him simply “white” is an outlier and plays into an unseemly portrayal of the situation, according to NewsBusters & Co. In his piece on the PBS report, for instance, NewsBusters correspondent Tim Graham charged that the “liberal networks” had “plucked this singular crime out of a national haystack because it fit their racist-America template.”

So what’s up at PBS? The day after Ifill’s “white” moment, NewsHour Executive Producer Linda Winslow sent an e-mail to the program’s editorial staff on how to handle racial identification in the Martin case. According to NewsHour spokeswoman Anne Bell, the memo said that mentioning the race of the central characters in the case is “not necessary” unless “it’s important to the specific story development.” The thinking behind that policy, Winslow pointed out, is that the NewsHour furnishes photographs of both Martin and Zimmerman, thus providing enough information on their respective races.

In cases where it’s necessary to describe Zimmerman, said Winslow, he is to be classified as “white and Hispanic.”

The reason that the NewsHour lapsed on Monday night, says Bell, was that one of the editors “who was usually involved in the story” wasn’t on hand. There’s no plan for a clarification or correction, says Bell. There should be.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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