Doc Soup Man saw a graphic on Pinterest that paints Trayvon Martin’s killer as a victim of media bias. What does it mean for the social networking site that the image was false?

I was recently checking out the new social media site Pinterest when I came upon this image:


Striking, isn’t it? I’ve been following the tragic killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a man who says he shot him in self defense, like most people. I’ve read some articles in The New York Times and I’ve read some coverage by some websites. The two pictures displayed at the top of the above graphic were immediately familiar to me. The bottom ones were not.

This graphic raises a lot of interesting questions about the power of the image, something that every documentary filmmaker is intimately familiar with.

Let’s start with the obvious: We see what we want to see. Having read details of the night, it’s easy to believe that Zimmerman was overzealous, at least, or a racist vigilante, at worst. And whatever Martin did, he didn’t deserve to die. Those two top pictures confirm that narrative.

But the bottom two pictures demand that we question those beliefs. In it, Zimmerman, who the Orlando Sentinel reports as being a well-liked loan underwriter, sure looks like a nice guy, while Martin looks like a punk who’s looking to provoke.

So these two bottom photos call things into question, but are they any more or less valid to sway my beliefs than the top two images? No, certainly not. What someone looks like in a photo can’t be used as evidence when determining what his or her actions might be in an extreme situation. That’s obvious. But it’s also naïve to suggest that such pictures don’t influence our feelings about a person’s ability to commit a crime.

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has been great at tackling these issues. He writes about them frequently for The New York Times, which lead to a 2011 book, Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, about truth in documentary photography, and his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line, which employed stylized reenactments persuasively, helped free a wrongly convicted man. I wish he’d have a go at this one!

But the way I stumbled onto this image continues to nag at me. Where did this graphic, which was spread by Pinterest and no doubt other social networks, come from? And would I be able to confirm its veracity?

I’m going to have to be the hater here. Everyone’s raving about Pinterest, with its bulletin board aesthetic and funky, po-po-mo mis-en-scene. Look, there’s Dave Eggers floating in the ether next to a quote from Hunger Games! Look, there’s a Van Halen album cover idling next to a copy of Little Women. And, yes, look at this compelling image of Zimmerman and Martin. Except that, as it turns out, after doing some digging, I came upon the truth that the bottom image isn’t the Trayvon Martin who was killed by Zimmerman. It’s an image that the blog Street Wise Pundit alleges a white-supremacist group began circulating.

Several outlets have since revealed this sham, and the woman who posted the image on her Pinterest board has since removed it. But that doesn’t mean that hundreds, thousands or millions of people didn’t already see it there, and that they didn’t get duped. A still image can be stunning and powerful. And social media sites can provide delightful ways to get information. But, from my very first introduction to Pinterest, I am seeing how dangerous it can be. Who curates this bulletin board? Who’s responsible for placing this hateful propaganda in a featured spot on Pinterest’s “Film, Music and Books” section? Was it some random algorithm? Or, what, it’s the people speaking?

There’s a long history of public witch-hunts, skewed by the narratives we hear and see in the tabloid media. Just think of Tawana Brawley or the Central Park Jogger. Now, we have platforms like Pinterest stirring the pot. They seem innocent and cool. All I can say is beware of the image.

Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs.

Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen