Updated below, 7/26/13, 11:30 am.
Recently, I wrote about the Zimmerman trial and my disappointment (if not complete surprise) at how irresponsible many journalists, scholars and lawyers have been in reporting, discussing, and drawing conclusions from that case. As I noted there, one of the most serious, and most obviously incorrect, of the many widespread errors about the case is that Zimmerman racially profiled a seven-year-old black child. Now, the original police log of Zimmerman's calls has been available to everyone with an Internet connection and two minutes to spare since March of 2012. Nevertheless, on July 16, 2013, The New Republic published an essay in which a distinguished law professor wrote the following (emphasis in original):
. . . Zimmerman was an edgy basket case with a gun who had called 911 46 times in 15 months, once to report the suspicious activities of a seven year old black boy.
That sentence contains three factual errors (the broader article contains others), two of which I noted in my prior post. First, and probably of least importance, many of Zimmerman's 46 calls (reporting 43 incidents) were made to the non-emergency police number (not just to 911). Second, and of more import, Zimmerman made 46 calls over 7.5 years (not over 15 months). Third, and most egregiously, Zimmerman's call (to the non-emergency police number) regarding a seven-to-nine-year-old black boy was placed because Zimmerman was "concerned for [the] well being" of that child, who was walking unaccompanied on a busy street (see page 37).
After being alerted to at least some of these errors, TNR eventually edited the sentence. Two changes were made — one acknowledged at the bottom of the TNR article, and one unacknowledged — while a third error was left unaddressed. The acknowledged change addresses the least damaging of the three errors: TNR replaced "called 911" with "called the polics [sic]," thus implicitly acknowledging that many of GZ's calls were to the non-emergency number rather than to 911. A more damaging error remains: that GZ made 46 calls within "15 months," instead of over a period of 7.5 years, as the call log readily shows.
But it's TNR's unacknowledged change in response to the third, most serious, error that really chafes. Here's how the sentence now reads (once again, italics in the original):
. . . Zimmerman was an edgy basket case with a gun who had called the polics 46 times in 15 months, once to report on a seven year old black boy.
TNR replaced "report the suspicious activities of a seven year old black boy" with "report on a seven year old black boy." The charitable characterization of this edit is that it is very, very lawyerly. Yes, the TNR piece no longer explicitly falsely claims that GZ called the police about a black boy because GZ found the child suspicious. But in the context of a paragraph meant to demonstrate that "[v]igilante justice . . . is especially menacing to minority racial groups who are often sterotyped as criminals," and in the absence of disclosing the benign (indeed, laudatory) reason why GZ did call police, the reporting of GZ's call about "a seven year old black boy" — complete with incredulity italics — strongly implies what the article only technically no longer says: that Zimmerman "reported on" a young black child because Zimmerman stereotyped that child as a criminal.
When I'm not blogging about the Zimmerman case, I write and teach at the intersection of law and science. As anyone who works in that area knows, public trust in science is indispensable. We need the public to participate in research, and we need them to fund research. And so it's really important not to conduct research on people without their knowledge and consent, not to fabricate or cherry pick data, not to hype your results, and to correct the media (or your university's PR person) when they get it wrong. I've written before about the importance of science communication and about a few science communication "fails," one in which the record was corrected graciously, and the other in which it was corrected (sort of) defensively and grudgingly. But TNR's covert non-correction correction is an entirely different species of response. It's one thing to make a mistake about facts. It's quite another to double down on damaging falsehoods after having your mistake pointed out. In that respect, TNR's cure here is worse than the disease.
What's at stake when we write and talk about the Zimmerman case is somewhat analogous to what's at stake in science communication. If you only want to preach to the choir, then I suppose that readers who only want to hear their own views echoed back to them will neither notice or care that you get the facts wrong along the way. But if the goal is instead to move out of entrenched positions towards some sort of common ground, then both "sides" will have to commit to some basic rules of intellectual honesty and good faith, or the conversation can't get off the ground. Playing fast and loose with the facts is not scholarly. It's not journalistic. And it's an excellent way to erode the foundation of trust that's necessary for the constructive conversation that we should be having.
When Zimmerman's calls are considered accurately, in their entirety, and in some context (all of which I tried to lay out in my prior post), I think that the case they make for Zimmerman as a serial racial profiler is weaker than those who haven't considered that evidence have tended to assume. It's just not the case, for example, that Zimmerman called the police about dozens of suspicious black men and never about white men. Still, I have little doubt that many will consider the call log evidence and continue to conclude that Zimmerman racially profiled black men, including Trayvon Martin. Fair enough; the case for Zimmerman as a serial racial profiler is weaker than it's often made out to be on the basis of factual errors, but it's not nonexistent. But surely, then, that case can be made based on the available evidence, without distorting or inventing facts and without pretending, contrary to all reasonable inferences, that every encounter Zimmerman had with a black male was driven by racism.
A distinguished law professor once poignantly argued (p. 20):
Overuse and abuse of the claim of bias is bad for society and bad for social justice. When a conflict really does involve hatred or deep-seated irrational prejudice, dialogue is pointless and condemnation is appropriate. But the emotionally charged accusation of bigotry is counterproductive when a conflict involves questions on which reasonable people can differ. Playing the race card makes it too easy to dismiss rather than address the legitimate concerns of others. And the accusation of bigotry inevitably provokes defensiveness and resentment rather than thoughtful reaction. The resulting interactions usually don't qualify as speech, much less dialogue. They're generally closer to mud wrestling. No one gets away clean.
Update 7/26/13, 11:30 am: As Jonathan Adler notes over at VC, TNR has edited the sentence once again. It now reads:
. . . Zimmerman was an edgy basket case with a gun who had called the police 46 times in 15 months.
As Adler points out, the "15 months" is still wrong (it's off by about 75 months, but who's counting), and there's no acknowlegement of the change. Still, the most egregious error has been corrected: all traces of the seven-year-old boy are at last gone from the online pages of TNR (if not from the memories of however many people read the piece in the first 10 days of its existence).