CBC ombudsman: No bias in Zimmerman trial headline

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

The complainant, Jon Melanson, thought that referring to the prosecution’s case and not the defense’s showed bias in CBC News coverage of the George Zimmerman trial in the Trayvon Martin case. The stories were balanced, and the news coverage over the period of the trial and its aftermath represented a range of views. There was no bias in the coverage.


You were concerned about the headline on a story that appeared on the morning of the first day of the George Zimmerman murder trial. “Why is the CBC, again, taking sides (against the gun owner, of course), with its headlines?” you asked. The headline in question read “Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin ‘because he wanted to.’” The words were actually spoken by the prosecutor as he opened the trial of George Zimmerman of second degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin. You thought a more balanced, appropriate headline would have been “Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in ‘self-defence.’”

George Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted in this high profile and controversial case. Zimmerman shot Martin after he spotted him walking in the gated townhouse community where Zimmerman was living. There was a struggle, and Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defence. The prosecution portrayed it as an act of vigilantism. The case drew international attention because it took 44 days for charges to be laid. It also touched a nerve about race relations in the United States because Martin was Black and Zimmerman is white.

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CBC News online covered the story through many iterations throughout the day, when the prosecution and defence presented their cases. The final version featured a headline that said: “Zimmerman portrayed as vigilante in Trayvon Martin shooting.” When the Senior Director of Digital Media, Marissa Nelson, responded to you and pointed out the changed headline, you dismissed it as equally biased:

“And did your 'new' headline mirror emphatically the defence's statement of facts? Of course not. That would not align with the CBC's prejudiced narrative; that Zimmerman is guilty. Your headline supported only one preconception; that of the prosecutor. A more balanced headline would read:

‘Zimmerman viciously attacked by Martin; fired in self-defence’

The politically correct CBC failed to fairly report this story.”

You asked me to conduct a review.


The Senior Director of Digital Media, Marissa Nelson, apologized for the delay in responding to your complaint about the story, first published June 24, 2013. She explained the headline was a reflection of what the prosecutor said in his opening remarks. It featured in the headline because it contained the newest information:

As I wrote to you in July following a similar complaint about a headline, in the speeded up news cycle these days, readers expect to find up-to-the-minute information on the stories they are interested in. To meet that expectation, CBCNews.ca regularly updates developing stories with new information as it becomes available. That is why earlier versions included a headline about what the prosecution said; subsequent versions included headlines reflecting the words of the defence.”

She added that later in the morning, after the defence lawyer had laid out his version of events, that Zimmerman shot Martin in self defense, those views were reported in the story and the headline changed to reflect it as well. She added: “In fact the story was revised, re-written or had new information added 39 times. A number of those revisions included a new headline reflecting the latest information.”

The issue at hand was not bias, Ms. Nelson said, but the reflection of a developing story, reported throughout the day.

To continue reading this review, please visit the CBC ombudsman's website, where this was originally published.