How Justice Is Sought For Trayvon Martin In The Media
Parents, protestors harness multiplatform media to seek justice for slain teen
(NOTE: Updated to include a timeline of mainstream coverage, corrects spellings.)
It’s likely that the minds responsible for each forward leap in technology and media did not sit down at a drafting table with the understanding that their inventions would help broadcast grotesque crimes and injustices.
Not long ago, YouTube hosted cellphone video footage of a handcuffed Oscar Grant, as he is shot in the back by a transit cop in Oakland, Calif. UStream allowed an audience to watch live, as cries to halt the execution of Troy Davis are ignored in Jackson, Ga. And a combination of several media platforms has broadcast to millions the final pleas for help from Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen who is posthumously redefining the way citizens demand justice.
When the truth was and is told, those citizens needn’t worry if the details were compelling enough. In Martin’s case, those who pressed “play” on clips of the 911 calls were horrified into action.
There’s no dispute that local media outlets were the first to report the Feb. 26 shooting death of Martin by 28-year-old George Zimmerman. He’s described as the volunteer neighborhood watch captain, who pursued the 17-year-old Martin against the advisement of a Sanford, Fla. police dispatcher.
As Poynter’s Kimberly McBride reported last Friday, the first story in the Martin case was a small brief in the Orlando Sentinel newspaper on Feb. 27. (Sanford is a suburb of Orlando.) That brief was followed by a short story the next day. Eleven days passed before the first of the most chilling details were picked up by news wires. Soon after, bloggers caught wind of it. A petition for Zimmerman's arrest was created on Change.org and observers flooded social media websites with the stories and the petition, McBride wrote.
Martin was discovered lifeless, bearing nothing more than his cellphone, a beverage and the package of Skittles. Those details wouldn’t keep national attention at bay.
[ALSO READ: What About Zimmerman's Gun?]
“The implications were already insane,” said Trymaine Lee, a senior Huffington Post reporter, who has been credited with helping Martin’s story go from local to viral. Lee wrote his first story from New York on March 8, the day Martin’s parents began address the media.
“(He was) an unarmed teenager. He was a good kid. (He had) candy in his pocket. It had all the elements there,” Lee said.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist flew from New York to Orlando on Feb. 15 to gather more of the story on the ground, arriving just one day before officials released 911 tape recordings. On them, Zimmerman makes statements, which cast serious doubts on his claim that he shot Martin in self-defense.
Sanford police officials applied a controversial policy, know as the “Stand Your Ground” law, allowing Zimmerman to walk away a free man, after minimal questioning.
“The picture was undeniable," Lee said. “I think that’s what really tipped the scales. Each step along the way, it just kept building and building until the picture was illuminated.”
Attorneys for the Martin family echoed Lee’s sentiment.
“After the release of the 911 tapes, we definitely saw a turning point, in terms of the national coverage,” said Jamine Rand, one of the primary attorneys assisting Benjamin Crump as the Martin family seeks Zimmerman’s arrest.
“I think that’s only natural," Rand said. “People wanted answers, and I think (the tapes) answered a lot of questions that remained – that this was a murder. That George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon. That this was not self-defense.”
“I can’t image the nation ignores hearing the loss of the life of a child,” Rand added.
And she couldn’t be more right. A search of the name “Trayvon Martin” in a Google Trends search engine showed interest in the case spiked upward, no more than two days after the tapes were release to the public.
Twitter feeds were flooded with discussion of racial implications in the case. Debates of the seemingly endless disregard for the lives of black and brown people by law enforcement and of gun control trended for several days. Custom hash tags allowed second-to-second tracking of those discussions, and quickly helped shape mainstream news priorities.
The people responsible for one of the more popular hashtags, #justice4trayvon, are coincidentally students of Rand at Florida A&M University. In her “Legal Problems of the Poor” course, Stanley Harvey, Teresa Berger and Danella Cross-Wilkins grew a strategy for a local, and eventually national, response to the case.
“Without social media there would not have been as much attention to this case,” said Harvey, a junior at FAMU. “A trending topic on Twitter will be the next story on MSNBC or CNN, and therefore we have to go this route.”
Many others seemingly took their cue from Harvey. Young communications professional Daniel Maree created the #millionhoodies hashtag to promote a New York City demonstration. The “A Million Hoodies March for Trayvon Martin” on March 21 attracted thousands of protestors. Trayvon’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, made a special appearance in Union Square to validate their efforts.
Richard Prince, who writes the media column “Journal-isms,” said the role social media has played in the Martin case cannot be overstated.
“Social media were out front on the story – but social media can only report what has been published elsewhere,” Prince said by email. “While Change.org let some know about its petition, the reports quoted in the social media were by and large from the mainstream news media.”
With the racial aspects of the story on many minds, the Martin case presents an opportunity for ethnic publications to rehash coverage and analysis many have run before. But Prince said many black print publications lack the agility to be “out front” on the story.
“They publish only weekly and would not have had time to get aboard the crest, since most don't update their websites between print editions,” Prince said.
The Martin case forced most practitioners of journalism, whether mainstream or not, to get some piece of the story to audiences who were eager to share with their followers and friends.
“Even on the early stories, you’d have 10,000 Facebook shares. That’s pretty big,” Lee said. “It’s a clear reminder that, as journalists, it’s our responsibility to make sure we get important stories out to the people.”
“We’re making it digestible for them,” Lee added.
In bite-sized pieces, much like the candy that Martin bought from a convenience store on Feb. 26, the stories are shared widely across communities, to ensure the battle for justice isn’t just a burden in Sanford, or in Florida, or in the southeast.
The Trayvon Martin case, as it’s playing out in the media, is refining a synergy of platforms. In concert, these platforms demonstrate that citizens aren’t allowing injustice to slip in and out of a traditional news cycle.