Public Editor

Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case overplayed, especially with front-page column

For three consecutive days last week, George Zimmerman’s being found not guilty in the murder of Trayvon Martin dominated Page A1 of The Kansas City Star. The readers I heard from clearly took issue with much of that coverage.

“I was so shocked to see (news of the verdict) so huge on your Sunday front page,” said one caller. “The Star had been pretty good before this, keeping things in perspective. But now all this is like I’m watching CNN and Fox News on a loop.”

“I want (The Star) to be about Kansas City, not Florida,” she continued. And if it’s not local, then “what about all that’s going on in Egypt, or our dysfunctional Congress? I hear more than I want to hear about this (Trayvon Martin) tragedy on TV.”

This is a perfectly understandable criticism. Of course it’s undeniable that the Zimmerman trial has been one of the biggest topics of debate on the national scene in recent weeks. It’s one of those “talker” topics that touches on elements of race, gun control, fear of youth crime and people’s safety in their own neighborhoods.

But at its core, I’m with my caller. This story never should have made the national news.

Real life is not an episode of “Law and Order,” and people are not allegorical characters in a piece of fiction. There is no symbolism in news events. Any “moral to the story” that we perceive in real-life situations is the product of our own imaginations, steeped as they are in art and literature.

Martin and Zimmerman’s woeful altercation stole the public spotlight nonetheless, even compelling President Barack Obama to comment on it. And passions ran so high that they resulted in actual news in Kansas City on occasion. For example, when hundreds of people assembled near the Plaza on March 26, 2012, to speak out against the shooting. At that point, that did become local news.

I also heard from many people who questioned a column on the case across the top of Page A1 on July 16. Some disagreed with the content and others thought it was right on, but that’s not what I’m here to discuss.

Instead, most of the readers I spoke to had a concern articulated particularly well by Carol Varner:

“With the advent of news commentary on television, the general public has become confused as to the difference between news reporting and editorial commentary. By putting Jenee Osterheldt’s column on the front page, you have contributed to blurring that line. Ms. Osterheldt is a good writer and I usually enjoy her column, but it’s not news. It’s editorializing. It does not belong on the front page.”

An oversight in the page’s design also contributed to the problem. Throughout The Star, columnists’ work is normally set apart from news reporting with a photo of the author and the label “commentary.” But in the Features sections, the labels use either the writer’s job (e.g. “theater critic”) or email address.

That usually makes sense there because most Features writers don’t write true commentary. But in Osterheldt’s case, and especially on the front page, that label needed to be crystal clear, and it wasn’t.

In general, I agree with Varner’s criticism. Cable TV and Internet news offer a 24/7 overdose of punditry. While newspapers have always taken part in that tradition, they should always keep it clearly identified in contrast to the straight news.