After three weeks of testimony, 50 witnesses and 16 hours of deliberation, the jury in the George Zimmerman case had spoken:
The decision came at 9:57 on a Saturday night – three minutes before we normally finish editing the Sunday paper.
But last Saturday was anything but typical.
This case, after all, had prompted a national discussion about self-defense laws, gun control and race. It’s the kind of story that draws readers to newspapers to help them make sense of it all so that they can form their own points of view.
Because of such wide interest in the case, we delayed our press start that night.
By 10:30 p.m., we redesigned our front page, edited a story on the verdict, wrote new headlines and launched a group of reporters to gather reaction from around metro Atlanta.
Later that night, as more information became available, we remade the paper yet again. For this edition, we added our local reaction piece, an updated story – and a photo of Trayvon Martin.
In the eyes of some of our readers, that’s where our coverage could have been stronger.
“The photo,” one reader wrote, “is clearly prejudicial, showing [Martin] at a much younger age.”
Another asked: “Would you use a picture of Zimmerman when he was much younger? I think not.”
As Miranda Kelley, a long-time subscriber told me, “it doesn’t matter what side you’re on, this is the picture people now have in their minds of Trayvon Martin.
“You have a responsibility to the community to be truthful.”
The truth of the matter is that much debate has been swirling around photos in the case since it first broke 17 months ago.
After Zimmerman’s arrest, readers wondered why some newspapers published a picture of Zimmerman in a suit and tie while others ran his police mug shot.
Not everyone might know that the more flattering picture of Zimmerman was obtained through an anonymous source by one Florida newspaper. Because of competitive reasons – and copyright concerns – some news organizations were allowed to run the photo; others were not.
Some readers asked why newspapers didn’t publish a photo of Martin that showed him with facial hair and tattoos running from his hand to his cheek.
The photo made it all the way to PolitiFact, which examined claims made in an email chain that it showed the “real” Trayvon Martin.
“They don’t show the up-to-date pictures of Trayvon Martin, in the media,” the email read. “Now you know why. Kinda scary, ain’t it?”
PolitiFact ranked those claims as “pants on fire.” Turns out the picture is actually a photo of a 32-year-old rapper from California known as Game.
This explains why news organizations don’t just grab photos from the Internet; instead, we rely on photos that we either take ourselves or are provided by trusted sources, such as The Associated Press
All of which brings us to the photo of Martin that we (and other newspapers) published.
In the photo, Martin is smiling and wearing a red T-shirt.
Some believe he is as young as 10 years old.
Do we really know for sure?
No, we don’t.
An attorney for Martin’s family told a columnist from The Washington Post that Martin was 16 years old when that photo was taken in August 2011. Yet, without confirmation, many newspapers consider the photo “undated.”
When we updated our tablet and electronic editions of “Today’s Newspaper” early Sunday morning, we made sure that the caption referred to the photo as an “undated file family photo.”
That’s how we should have referred to the same photo that ran in Sunday’s printed newspaper.
Better yet, we could have run a more recent photo of Martin.
But in the hustle and bustle that comes with putting out a paper – and, in light of all of the changes that happened so quickly between 10:30 and midnight last Saturday – we used the photo that was most accessible and most widely distributed.
By the time Monday morning’s newspaper hit the streets, we had a more recent photo of Martin on our front page. And within a day or two, the handful of readers who had complained about our earlier photo choice seemed to understand:
“I did notice the change in picture in Monday’s edition. I appreciate the honesty and candor of your explanation,” one reader wrote.
Another email read: “Thank you … we can certainly all agree that it could have been handled better.”
As for my telephone conversation with Kelley (she’s the woman who’s been reading the paper for 20 years), it couldn’t have been more pleasant.
She likes the changes we’ve made to the paper – and told me she understood just how quickly we had to work Saturday night to bring our readers the latest news.
“I heard the verdict on the radio at 10 o’clock, so I knew it had to be a mad scramble.”
She told me how much she appreciated the fact that someone from the newspaper walked her through our decision-making process.
And, after hearing my explanation about the photo, she ended our chat with three words that made us all feel better:
“I accept that.”