Zimmerman trial coverage more like TV drama than news, critics say

The trial of George Zimmerman that has dominated the U.S. news networks for weeks is drawing criticism from expert and amateur media observers alike who say the seemingly endless coverage has overshadowed reports about major world events.

'Gavel-to-gavel' live coverage of Zimmerman trial has generated harsh criticism from media observers

A jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin following a 16-hour deliberation on July 13, 2013. (Canadian Press)

The trial of George Zimmerman that has dominated U.S. news networks for weeks is drawing criticism from expert and amateur media observers alike who say the seemingly endless coverage has been more about reality TV than reporting.

"Egypt is exploding, Edward Snowden is leaking National Security Agency secrets, Syria is in incredible turmoil, there's an immigration bill in Congress, there is all of this stuff going and news organizations are supposed to be covering that," says Dylan Byers, a media reporter at Politico, a U.S.-based political journalism website and newspaper.

"Instead they seem to be taking advantage of a storyline that is much more akin to a fictional crime drama, and they're going wall to wall to a degree that is exhausting," he says.

While the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012 and subsequent arrest of Zimmerman raised international interest, the networks have obsessed over the trial itself. The four major U.S. cable news networks – CNN, Fox News Channel, HLN and MSNBC – all covered the trial in exhaustive detail from the day it began until Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder on July 13.

Criticism on social media erupted July 3, when CNN opted to show a live feed of protests in Cairo, the largest demonstration in human history, in a small box in the bottom corner of the screen while the trial played in full screen.

Byers points out the noticeably "trimmed down" coverage of the coup in Egypt is only one on a laundry list of events that the U.S. cable networks passed up in favour of the Zimmerman trial.

CNN has taken the brunt of criticism because it, more than any other channel, has long branded itself as the place to go for breaking international and domestic news, says Eric Boehlert, a journalist and fellow at Media Matters for America, a not-for-profit research group.

CNN ran a special nightly program dedicated solely to wrapping up the day's developments for the entire three weeks of the trial. It was a tactic aimed at keeping people interested in a trial "that had very few truly riveting moments," says Boehlert.

On Friday, Byers published statistics on his Politico blog from the search engine TVEyes that indicated that since July 3, the day the coup in Egypt began, the word "Zimmerman' had been mentioned 1,079 times on CNN, while the word 'Egypt' had been said only 349 times.

About 10.6 million people tuned in Saturday night to U.S. cable news networks to watch the verdict, boosting viewership in a usually slow time slot, according to figures obtained by Reuters on Monday.

Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC – which each average about 650,000 viewers in the 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. timeslot – each had more than 1 million viewers at 10 p.m. ET when the verdict was announced, according to Nielsen ratings data.

Pre-fab storylines

Critics say there are a number of reasons why U.S. media has given so much attention to the Zimmerman trial.

According to Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University and a prominent media critic in the U.S., trials like this offer a cheap and simple way for cable news channels to roll out pre-fabricated programming.

"The whole thing is about pre-fab. A trial is a pre-fab story line: defence against the prosecution. You have a pre-fab narrative structure: prosecution, defence, closing arguments, jury, waiting to build suspense, verdict, reactions," he told CBC News in a written Skype chat.

"Producers love it because you can plan for it."

Last Monday, Rosen wrote on his popular blog PressThink that he had "retired" from critiquing CNN indefinitely, saying that criticism of CNN should now be left to television entertainment writers and not press observers.

Boehlert points out that July is a notoriously slow month for cable news producers and murder trials offer a great deal of free content that requires almost no additional journalism or resources.

"From a cynical perspective, it's really a mixture of laziness and the pursuit of ratings," says Boehlert. "They can have the same shows and the same people on their network day after day after day and not worry about doing more."

The Zimmerman case is just the latest example of the U.S. media's growing obsession with courtroom drama. A trend toward airing three or four trials a year began about five years ago, says Boehlert, whereas before then the networks were reluctant to hand over large chunks of their live programming time to court coverage.

"Years ago, this was the domain of Court TV, the idea of flipping a switch and spending hours and hours watching a trial," he says. "But you don't hear much about Court TV anymore because cable news has taken over that role."

Byers points to the trial of Jodi Arias, an Arizona woman found guilty in May of the 2008 murder of her ex-boyfriend, as an example of the ratings boost that courtroom coverage of a high-profile case can bring. The HLN television channel, a spinoff of CNN that Byers describes as "tabloid TV," doubled its average May audience and saw a 97 per cent increase in younger viewers during primetime hours.

HLN even used the trial to promote itself, issuing a press release in late May that said it was No. 1 in cable news as "Arias pleads for her life."

It appears that the Zimmerman trial coverage has also paid off for the cable networks. According the entertainment industry magazine Variety, viewership in the key demographic of adults aged 25 to 54 on the major networks carrying the trial was up a combined 49 per cent this week as compared to the week before the trial began.

Missed opportunity

However, some say the Zimmerman coverage has also benefitted American society.

Defenders of cable news network coverage of the trial have argued that cases like this encourage important national discussions, particularly about issues like race relations and gun control in the U.S., and that is why the 'gavel-to-gavel' coverage is important.

Even so, critics argue that until the verdict was handed down, most of the media discussion revolved around the day-to-day courtroom minutia and failed to adequately address the big social issues connected to the trial.

"The media hasn't successfully nurtured constructive debates about these issues. They are just throwing them out there to heighten the sense of the drama, and then they are focusing on the hyper-specific aspects of the trial," says Byers.

Boehlert agrees, noting that following the verdict on the weekend there was a deluge of helpful analysis about the larger issues at hand on social media and in the news, but that it was "too little, too late."

"Cable TV news is just not really the place to have a nuance or intelligent discussion about much of anything these days," he says.

"The networks will probably keep carrying this until the end of the week, but I seriously doubt anything more substantive will come out of it."