We don’t know what happened in Sanford, Florida, on the night of February 26. The facts in the case involving seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, in which Martin was shot dead, are sketchy. But now we do know, based on reporting by the Orlando Sentinel, that the facts in the case are in dispute.
The Sentinel was first to reveal what Zimmerman, the shooter, told investigators following the incident. He said Trayvon had accosted him, had punched him in the face so hard it broke his nose and knocked him down. Then, said Zimmerman, Trayvon had subdued him on the ground and slammed his head onto the pavement. This report was passed on to the state attorney’s office.
This was a significant development, not because it is to be believed but because it suggests the matter may not represent the blatant injustice and example of racism that many are insisting it is. It suggests there is merit in withholding judgment until the full story can be pieced together.
This article represents good reporting. Many Martin relatives and mourners understandably have dismissed the report as the handiwork of police bent on simply smearing the victim. But a newspaper’s job is to get the facts out—in this case, the fact of the existence of another version of events that had not yet seen the light of public discourse.
And so it was puzzling that the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday would bury the lead in its update of the story. The Journal’s article begins with thousands of protesters demanding the arrest of Zimmerman. Then, in a long second graf, it provides standard background on the case. Not until the third paragraph did the Journal bring up the Sentinel report. And then it glossed over many of the details reported by the Sentinel—and subsequently by other papers.
Both the Washington Post and the New York Times led with the dramatic new information, which is standard journalistic practice. Since the Journal got the headline right, there’s no reason to cry institutional bias. But this is poor newspapering, a seriously flawed effort.