If you've forgotten the "Duke Lacrosse case," allow me or Wikipedia to refresh your memory. In March 2006, Crystal Magnum accused three Duke University lacrosse players of raping her at a party. She also complained of racial insults, and the prosecuting attorney in the case suggested it might be a hate crime. The story produced a media firestorm.
The New York Times started its coverage with a front page story, and published roughly an article a day on the case over the next month, to give an example from just one major media outlet. The media coverage resulted in large protests, and the lacrosse team itself and just about everyone affiliated with its members suffered from threats of violence and vandalism of their property.
Over time, an investigation was performed. DNA tests undertaken, and inconsistencies in Magnum's story came to light. Finally, in April 2007, the attorney general of North Carolina dropped all charges against the players, saying they had been the victims of a "rush to judgement." No kidding.
Oh how little we have learned. Today we have the case of Trayvon Martin, shot by George Zimmerman – that much, at least, seems beyond dispute. Zimmerman claims he acted in self defense – one witness says he saw Martin on top of Zimmerman before the shooting. If that is what happened, then this story, however unfortunate, probably doesn't deserve to be national news, certainly doesn't deserve around-the-clock coverage. But others have suggested that Zimmerman was motivated by racism and attacked without provocation, and the media has been only to happy to make that possibility national news. And what is the result? There have been massive protests. Zimmerman has been threatened (and his address has been tweeted), police involved in the case have been threatened. And now the Black Panthers have offered a $10,000 reward for his capture. All of this, remember, for a man who might be innocent of a crime – the media has rushed to judgement yet again.
Now, it's quite possible that Zimmerman is guilty of everything his worst foes accuse him of. There is plenty about this case that troubles me. But that's exactly the point – I don't know. Neither does anyone else, and both the scope and tone of the media coverage ought to reflect that fact.