The recent developments in the study of magnetic properties in the spinel zinc ferrite system are explored. Engineering of ionic valence and site distribution allows tailoring of magnetic interactions. Recent literature is reviewed, and own investigations are presented for a conclusive understanding of the mechanisms responsible for the magnetic behavior in this material system. By varying the Zn-to-Fe ratio, the deposition, as well as thermal annealing conditions, ZnFe2O4 thin films with a wide range of crystalline quality are produced. In particular, the focus is on the magnetic structure in relation to spectroscopic properties of disordered ZnFe2O4 thin films. Comparing the cation distribution in film bulk (optical transitions in the dielectric function) and near-surface region (X-ray absorption), it is found that an inhomogeneous cation distribution leads to a weaker magnetic response in films of inverse configuration, whereas defects in the normal spinel are likely to be found at the film surface. The results show that it is possible to engineer the defect distribution in the magnetic spinel ferrite film structure and tailor their magnetic properties on demand. It is demonstrated that these properties can be read out optically, which allows controlled growth of the material and applications in future magneto-optical devices.