A Pew Research poll this month revealed that less than a third of Americans believe journalists contribute "a lot" to societal well-being. That's more in a continuing stream of bad news for the media.

Unfortunately, the press has done little to improve that image with its coverage of Trayvon Martin's death. Instead, reporters took a tragic situation and sensationalized it, igniting racial tensions rather than focusing on what many see as serious gaps in our gun and self-defense laws.

The case undoubtedly merited attention. Martin was unarmed when he was shot last year. His killer, George Zimmerman, hadn't been arrested. Martin's family held a press conference seeking media attention, with their attorney alleging that Zimmerman had profiled their son.

The problems began almost immediately. The first Associated Press article on the incident, published March 8, described a situation in which Martin had "gone to a convenience store to buy some Skittles and was returning home when he was confronted by an armed man who was head of the local neighborhood watch."

Consider the image of being "confronted by an armed man" and compare that with events as we now understand them to have unfolded.

The article pointed out that Martin was black and his killer was white. This was crucial to a story that CBS News' Charlie Rose gravely warned earlier that day had "serious racial overtones" - so crucial that when Zimmerman's family revealed that he was Hispanic, some media, including the New York Times, stressed that he was a white Hispanic.

Certainly that is a valid description. The Census Bureau classifies Hispanic origin as distinct from race. But the media typically do not. In fact, during the year prior to Zimmerman's mention in the Times, one would be hard-pressed to find the paper refer to any other individual as both white and Hispanic.

Some news organizations rightly pointed out that Hispanic Americans could also be guilty of racial profiling. But even when his father revealed that Zimmerman grew up in a multiracial family and that his great-grandfather was black, the media - like Ishmael describing Moby Dick - continued to obsess about his whiteness.

At every turn the media seemed to willingly pull facts out of context to sensationalize the story and amplify the racial angle:

The first publicized photos depicted a 14-year-old Martin, three years younger and smaller than at the time of the shooting. Zimmerman was shown in an orange prison jumpsuit. These were, at the very least, prejudicial to public understanding.

When Zimmerman's 911 calls were released, NBC inexplicably edited the tape, stringing together separate statements in order to portray Zimmerman as saying: "This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black."

A CNN analysis suggested that Zimmerman had used a racial epithet under his breath during that 911 call. The network later retracted the allegation.

Instances such as these could easily be attributed to simple error if that error did not consistently fall in one direction. No reports featured tape improperly edited to cast Zimmerman in a good light.

Instead, positive stories about Zimmerman received little play. Few journalists explored reports that Zimmerman tutored African American boys after school. Fewer still followed up on CNN's story about Zimmerman's vocal criticism of the Sanford Police Department in the beating of a homeless black man.

A recent Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of Americans no longer trust the media to report the news "fully, accurately, and fairly." Distorted coverage of Martin's killing has done nothing to improve that trust.

Instead of informing the nation and leading us toward debate of the laws that allowed this to happen, the media largely inflamed the people, reopened racial wounds, and drove us further apart. It did not have to be this way.

Matthew Reavy, a former newspaper editor, is chair of the communication department at the University of Scranton. E-mail him at matthew.reavy@scranton.edu.