The 21st century's Tower of Babel has been found. Its the media coverage of the Zimmerman trial. In a world of horror, with innocent children being slaughtered in conflicts around the world, with the horror of the world's prison systems and the gulag for men and minorities that our own system represents, with the unchained death penalty in the U.S. indexed by a record number of executions in the leading state for State killings,Texas, the media abandons most of these horrific problems that cry out for our attention and devotes untold millions of dollars and thousands of hours to covering one trial, that of George Zimmerman. The death of Trayvon Martin is but one horror in a nation awash in horrors. This case has few or no major aspects of law or nationally relevant points to make. Indeed, racism may be the only point, and racism's role is unclear and is not an example with implications for most communities. The first revelation of the murder attracted the usual rush of famous clerics, lawyer/pundits and activists. Before much was known about the case, these rush-to-judgment media denizens were everywhere declaring this as a major case of racism. The President weighed in inappropriately, comparing Trayvon Martin to a hypothetical Presidential son. And so this not very notable case of a Florida murder, sad and horrific as every of the approximately 12000 gun homicides in 2012 were, is selected out of all those horrors for total media saturation.
This loss of perspective on the horrors confronting us and our need to deal with them is exacerbated by the relentless babble of the media pundits. Gavel to gavel reporting of every minute detail of this ongoing trial was covered by the media during which period of time hundreds of other Americans are being tried across the nation, some unfairly, some sentenced to inappropriate prison terms or put on death row for something they didn't do (note The Innocence Project), in media silence.
In the Zimmerman trial every nuance of prosecution and defense strategy, witnesses and courtroom performance were debated by media lawyers, anchors, and professional media "contributors" of little-known credentials. No details of education or experience in trial work are presented for most of them. But by the dozens they engage in analyses of human behavior, motivation,emotion, attitude and decision making. They specify what is normal behavior and deviations from it, what one would expect of an individual under this condition or that, and so on. They speculate about the truth-telling of witnesses, about the meaning of demeanor, the nuances of so-called body language that are notoriously unreliable under these conditions, etc. Astoundingly, no or few trained psychologists have been involved in the coverage (I have seen none), people who have spent a lifetime of rigorous study of human behavior, motivation, emotion, attitude and decision making. If we are going to let media punditry direct and inform these discussions and debates in a nation with more rigorously trained Ph.D's in psychology than any country, the quality of the national media debates requires that we draw upon that specialized training.The public deserves no less.
The Zimmerman Effect is the driving out of more urgent and inclusive debates by a less urgent and more narrow debate. A nation should keep perspective on the social and communication expenditures of time and money it allocates, attending to the largest issues of horror in our times.
To summarize, I have drawn two generalizations from the Zimmerman trial: 1) Keep perspective on allocating our national time and energy on the horrors confronting us. The Zimmerman trial saturation deprives the nation of debates on other equal or more pressing issues. As with individuals, nations can deplete their energy, and lose their balance. The vast media coverage raises questions of opportunity costs. What opportunities in our national discussions have been lost due to the obsession with this one trial? 2) Where are the psychologists? Criminal trials are grounded in evidence, usually features of human behavior. Are the nation's law schools grounding their students in solid psychology, in the comprehensive and rigorous study of human behavior? Its not happening.