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The Orlando Sentinel, Published June 17 2012

Polls: Public opinion on George Zimmerman shifting

SANFORD, Fla. – For weeks, the death of Trayvon Martin, the investigations it launched and the civil rights rallies it spurred were the most important news stories in the country, according to pollsters.

At least six news organizations or polling companies did surveys. What they documented, in general, was that people were fascinated and outraged by the Feb. 26 death of the unarmed 17-year-old and angry at the shooter, Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

Two sets of findings, though, stand out:

Although it was the No. 1 story in the country overall, twice as many blacks as whites singled it out as the country’s most important story, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

And as time has passed and more evidence has been released, people’s feelings about Zimmerman have eased.

In late March, while people were still marching in the streets demanding his arrest, 33 percent of the country believed Zimmerman was guilty of murder, according to a poll by Rasmussen Reports.

The same poll showed that fewer than half that number – 15 percent – believed Zimmerman had acted in self-defense.

Two months later, however, those numbers had flip-flopped. In a May 19-20 Rasmussen poll, 40 percent said they believed Zimmerman had acted in self-defense vs. 24 percent who called him a murderer.

“This, obviously, was a huge news story,” said Scott Rasmussen, founder of Rasmussen Reports.

People’s opinions about Zimmerman changed, said Kenny Irby, a faculty member at The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., because “people are modulating their opinions based on the staccato-like information that comes out.”

And it will likely continue to shift, he said, as more bits and pieces come out.

Since those mid-May numbers were released, there have been major developments in the case: Zimmerman is back in jail because his wife, Shellie, lied under oath about the family’s finances, Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. concluded.

On Tuesday, Shellie Zimmerman was arrested, and she was charged with perjury.

Those things, Irby said, will likely cause public opinion to shift again, this time against Zimmerman.

“One of the reasons that we track it over time,” said Rasmussen, “is that in the heat of the moment people have a visceral reaction. Then they learn a little more about it and get away from the horror, sometimes those reactions change.”

Early polls, the ones that reflect the most hostility toward Zimmerman, were conducted when news organizations relied heavily on outdated photos of both Martin and Zimmerman, Irby said. The Martin photos, released by his family through a public relations professional, showed an adolescent boy – not a 17-year-old.

Those of Zimmerman were from a 2005 arrest when he was 65 pounds heavier.

The night he was shot, Martin was 5-foot-11, 158 pounds, according to his autopsy. Zimmerman is 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, accord-ing to his most recent arrest report.

Their respective sizes are important because witnesses told police they saw or heard Zimmerman and Martin in a fight. Zimmerman told police that Martin pinned him to the ground and was pounding his head on the sidewalk. The teen was returning from a local 7-Eleven with Skittles and an iced tea when the altercation with Zimmerman happened.

Since then, more-recent photos of Martin and Zimmerman have been pub-lished.

“I think the images bear out it’s a pretty even battle, in terms of body size and mass,” Irby said. “But you know, Skittles versus a gun, there’s no fairness in that alignment.”

Every week, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press conducts a survey asking people what news stories are most important to them.

In a poll completed April 1, 10 days before Zimmerman was arrested, Americans said Martin’s shooting was. The week before, they gave the same answer.

“This story had so many elements that it just kept percolating for a while,” said Michael Remez, a Pew spokesman, “questions of race … the adequacy of the police probe.”

There also were questions about gun rights, Remez said, and the wisdom of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which allows people with a reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm to use deadly force without fear of arrest.

There was a stark difference, though, between how the story resonated with blacks and whites. In the April 1 survey, 58 percent of blacks identified the Martin/Zimmerman story as the country’s most important vs. 24 percent for whites, Pew reported.

“Blacks in America are still very much aware of the prevalence of racism in American society,” said Irby, “so the Martin case struck a major chord among African-American people and increasingly people of color in America.”

They understand, in a way that whites do not, what racial profiling is and how dangerous it can be, he said.

“This was kind of clarion call that we need some change, some real change in regard to profiling,” he said.