July 11, 2013
Trayvon Martin
(Julie Fletcher / The Associated Press)

News outlets face a difficult set of choices as closing arguments take place in the trial of George Zimmerman. A rough consensus among trial observers suggests that the proceedings haven’t favored the prosecution — not that anyone outside the juror room has any notion of how the testimony has impressed those who matter the most. In any case, many have speculated that an acquittal of Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012, would ignite a more extreme version of the protests that followed publicity of the tragic event. Civil unrest, in other words.

It’s an almost-impossible topic to address prospectively. After all, riots defy predictions, and certainly no sane news organization wants to focus so thoroughly on chances for disturbance that they end up promoting it. Yet there’s a definite news angle here, as this passage from a July 7 New York Times story attests:

Mr. Lowman Oliver, the Sanford pastor, said he remained optimistic. “You can feel a little sense that anger is re-emerging,” he said.

The possibility of an acquittal has prompted community leaders, ministers and law enforcement officials in Miami and Sanford to prepare. This week in Miami, they will hold a meeting in Miami Gardens, where Mr. Martin lived, to talk about the complexity of the legal case and what has happened in the courtroom so far. They are also reaching out to young people in schools and parks and through Web sites, urging them to remain calm.

“It is important that we still maintain peace, even though decisions are not made to our liking,” Mr. Jackson said. “That is our message, and that is what we are preaching.”

The story carefully avoids using the word “riot.”

A recent edition of Fox News’s “O’Reilly Factor” didn’t tiptoe around that term. The host approached the topic with commentators Juan Williams and Mary Katharine Ham:

O’REILLY: So, Juan, is the case all about race and if so, are you seeing bad things if Zimmerman is acquitted?
JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, of course it’s all about race. It’s been all about race from the start. And remember when the media, I think, unfairly libeled Zimmerman making him out to be some, you know, KKK guy who has profiled Trayvon Martin right from the start. Described him to police like we later learned he played with the tape to make that happen.
And I think right now when you — it’s sad to me because I think the media now is playing for the most primitive racial division. Conservatives supposed to back Zimmerman. Liberals are supposed to back Trayvon Martin. I think it’s become like for them you know an O.J. Simpson/Rodney King redo.
And the second part of your question already you see that in Sanford, Florida, religious leaders, civic leaders are now having to go out and hold meetings with the community trying [to] say don’t have a riot if somehow, you know, Zimmerman is acquitted of this crime.
O’REILLY: What do you think Mary Katharine? Do you think bad things are going to happen if Zimmerman is acquitted?
MARY KATHARINE HAM, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Well I mean I pray that they don’t. And I’m glad that there is civic leaders involved and on this issue. But I do think that when you have the entire media really jump to make this a racial morality play from the very beginning.

In a segment addressing viewer mail, O’Reilly pushed back against someone who’d taken exception to his commentary on possible post-trial events:

Roderick McKrieth, Union, New Jersey, “Bill, what makes you think blacks will act inappropriately after the Zimmerman verdict? That presumption on your part is part of the larger problem.”

This is a no-presumption zone, Rod. Surely you know how heated the media coverage of the trial has been. Remember the Rodney Kind deal? I do. I was right in the middle of those riots in L.A.

As for the home team, one story in The Post, about the role of race in the trial, brought up the potential reaction if Zimmerman is acquitted:

[Harold] Daniels, [an] African American pastor, has detected a similar sense of discomfort in the community. “You feel everybody’s watching each other,” he said.

He has thought about what might happen if Zimmerman is acquitted, how the community might react. And it worries him.

“They’re going to be angry. They’re going to be disappointed. They wouldn’t be surprised,” Daniels said. “They feel, ‘Oh, he’s going to get off.’ They’ll take it as another slap against civil rights.”

But he doesn’t believe the African American community would be so angry, he says, that it would “burn the community down.”

Daniels would rather that everyone came away from the case with the sentiments expressed in a story he likes to tell his flock. It’s about some people who see someone come around a corner. They say, “There’s a white man.” When another person walks past, they say, “There’s a black man.” When God sees the same people turning the corner, Daniels says, he only remarks: “There’s a man.”

CNN has been celebrated and shunned for its wall-to-wall coverage of the Zimmerman trial. Within those walls lie references to what could transpire in the event of an acquittal. Piers Morgan on Monday night, for example, broached the topic with defense attorney Mark O’Mara:

If George Zimmerman is acquitted, completely acquitted, not found guilty of second-degree murder, no lesser charge of manslaughter, and walks free, having killed somebody we know after the event was an unarmed young teenager, there is a concern that this will create a lot of ill feeling, particularly in the black community around America. There may possibly be riots. You will have read the same warnings about this.

The latest on this topic comes from the most level-headed of outlets. The Associated Press today reported:

Police and city leaders in Florida say they have taken precautionary steps for the possibility of mass protests or even civil unrest if George Zimmerman is acquitted in the killing of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, particularly in African-American neighborhoods where passions run strongest over the case.

Here’s hoping that this is one aspect of the Zimmerman case that is truly overhyped.

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