Trayvon Martin story reveals new tools of media power, justice

How does a story about teenager’s illogical killing go from barely registering a mention in local newspapers to a national conversation? It’s carried by people who care — by family, by bloggers who fear for their own children and by communities with tools that connect them to each other for fortification, while they wait for someone to listen.

Ten years ago Trayvon Martin’s family would have had a hard time getting the national media’s attention. But with the help of a few bloggers, Change.org, and social media, they managed to put increasing pressure on the Sanford, Fla., Police Department to charge their son’s killer and release the 911 recordings. When they prevailed on that second goal a week ago, they got the break they needed.

Look at the path they traveled and you can see the way media power has changed.

The road they took

George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin on Sunday evening, Feb. 26. The Orlando Sentinel published a brief on Feb. 27 and a very short first story on Feb. 28. Police told reporters the death was the result of an altercation.

The Sentinel used to have a bureau in Sanford and twice as many reporters assigned to cover news, said Editor Mark Russell.

“If we still had an office in Sanford, I think we would have heard about the details of this story sooner,’’ he told me in a phone call.

More than a week went by, then on March 8, Trayvon’s father Tracy Martin held a press conference to call for Zimmerman’s arrest. It was the first time anyone suggested publicly that Trayvon’s death could be a murder. “At that point, we realized we had a pretty big story on our hands,” Russell said. The Sentinel published a second story 11 days after the 17-year-old’s death. It began with the detail that Trayvon had a bag of Skittles in his pocket.

Also on that day, Howard University Law School alum Kevin Cunningham saw a link to a Reuters story on a listserv for the Men of Howard, a group that began as a secret fraternity back in the 1930s. Cunningham told me in a phone interview that he’s been experimenting with the power of social media, so he started a petition on Change.org demanding that Sanford Police charge Zimmerman with a crime. It got 100 signatures that first day. (When the family asked, he gladly turned the petition over to them.)

On that same day, Huffington Post reporter Trymaine Lee, a Pulitzer Prize winner, also started blogging about the case.

And African American bloggers around the country started telling the story. Nick Chiles at MyBrownBaby.org wrote, “These kinds of stories cut me deeply because I see my own life, my own son, my own circumstances, all up in the details.” South Florida single mom blogger known as DebsVintageSoul wrote, “I am grateful for Social Media and the Internet that brings us these important stories and make it less likely that people like Trayvon Martin will live and die and vanish away without leaving an imprint.”

In the next two days, many more blogs cried out, including Globalgrind, RavingBlackLunatic, and NewBlackMan. Also, the Miami Herald published a story.

The week of March 12, news coverage started to pick up. The family’s lawyers filed official requests that the Sanford Police release the 911 tapes.

On Tuesday, the petition had 15,000 signatures. That flagged the attention of the folks who run Change.org, who assigned a campaigner to provide support to the family.

By Wednesday, March 14, the Sentinel had several stories and an editorial demanding state law enforcement take over the investigation. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coats was writing about Trayvon, and local TV station WFTV had found witnesses who challenged the police version of events.

The petition cleared 100,000 signatures.

On Friday, March 16, the New York Times published an op-ed by Charles M. Blow. It was one of the first stories to explain that although Trayvon was killed 70 yards from his father’s house, police had tagged Trayvon’s body as a John Doe and didn’t attempt to find his parents until Tracy Martin called 911 to report his son missing.

Sanford Police released the 911 tapes that same day. It’s not clear why they released just before the weekend. The family was scheduled to go before a judge and argue their case that Monday.

Demonstrators pray during the Million Hoodie March in Union Square Wednesday, March 21, 2012 in New York. Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie when he was killed. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Sentinel columnist Darryl Owens drew the connection between Trayvon’s death and Sanford’s history of racism in a column on Saturday, March 17.

By Saturday, stories about the 911 tapes started to trickle out. The tapes raised troubling questions about Zimmerman’s pursuit of Trayvon and the Sanford Police investigation. That prompted Judd Legume of Think Progress on March 18 to put together a set of simple facts titled “What Everyone Should Know About Trayvon Martin (1995-2012)”; that story quickly went viral, with 147,000 likes on Facebook.

The petition topped 200,000 signatures.

And from that point, the story ignited. Social media exploded. Trayvon started trending on Twitter. By midweek, the shooting was a household conversation in America.

“Monday or Tuesday, there were one or two stories every hour,” Legume told me in a phone interview. “By Wednesday there were 30-40 stories an hour. Attention on social media drove the broader press to focus on it.”

The new news flow

This is how stories are told now. They are told by people who care passionately, until we all care.

Think of the Jena Six, the story of six black teenagers unjustly prosecuted in 2007 for attempted murder following a fight that erupted as a result of racial tensions. Black bloggers kept that story alive until Howard Witt, then a writer for the Chicago Tribune, brought it into the mainstream media. That took almost a year. Trayvon’s story took three weeks.

At a protest in New York this week, Trayvon’s mother Sybrina Fulton shouted out, “Travyon is your son.” Her message found a home.

The Change.org petition now has more than 1.5 million signatures. Zimmerman has yet to be charged with a crime.

Before social media came to dominate our lives, I’d like to believe that traditional media would have demanded justice for Trayvon. Certainly traditional newsrooms played a crucial role this past week. But it’s reassuring to know there are more people, with more tools, demanding justice.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/fairwellsmith Angela V. Fairwell-Smith

    I am a retired soldier and the 911 call should of set things straight with the death of Trayvon Martin.  The police told Zimmerman not to follow him and he said ok but he also said those (a) holes always get a way and he said to himself that this one will not get away.  All of this was recorded and the answer was there for all to know he did what he wanted to do and the police did not do what was right.  We as americans look for the police to do the right thing in porotecting us yet did they do what they were suppose to do.  As soldiers we do our duty and many families have lost love ones as we protect America.  This to me was a open and closed case from Zimmermans comment on the 911 call.  As a African-American I am afraid we are going to go back wards after we have come so far in society.  I pray that the truth will come out and that we all pray that things will not get bad for African Americans. 

  • Anonymous

     Every adolescent who has ever lived has “disrespected” people. Now that I look my age, I notice this! Young people sometimes nearly bump into me, as if I were invisible. Nothing about this normal behavior justifies an adult becoming murderously angry.

  • Anonymous

    Trayvon’s parents say that Trayvon has been getting disrespected multiple times throughout all this. First by getting racially profiled. Then by getting shot and killed. Then by people trying to claim he was a gangsta. Once the FBI IDs whoever is crying on the 911 tape that will help clear up which of the two was more in distress at the time of the shooting.

  • Anonymous

    this is a sad sad story, we live in america where we thought we should live peaceful and believe that we shoud be treated equal but things like this that makes you think twices. I can’t understand how you can go after a person and shot them and say it is justified, where is the justication in that, i hope and pray that justices will be done, we don’t need this to be over love.

  • Anonymous

    Kids will be kids so what he did at school has nothing to do with his murder. Just because of his suspentions does he deserve to die. The gated community is were his father lived. Second i would love to not if all those things about him being beligerent, feral, and racist is true not saying its not, Zimmerman did not know any of this about him so it was a stereotype, or just straight mindful acusation.I really dont get your point cause all he was doing was walking so he deserve to die for being on the wrong block? I belive it it was switch the race he would of been in jail.
    R.I.P Trayvon M
    artin 
    @yahoo-SWXFW3EWUOFQKRG5SZ54HRTR6A:disqus 
    Oh sorry for the grammar eras i was in a rush

  • Anonymous

    ok sir his dad lived in the gated comunity first of all. Second i would like to note he is a kid and kids get in trouble all the time.I also want to note that zimmerman new nothing about the kid and followed him after being told not to.I am white and i believe if it was oposite of colors the african American would be arrested.Their is no excuse he deserve to be in jail.

  • Anonymous

    Without the media, main stream and otherwise, Trayvon Martin would just be another statistic.

  • Anonymous

    Without the media, main stream and otherwise, Trayvon Martin would just be another statistic.

  • Anonymous

    Hope you’ve become more informed since posting this drivel

  • http://twitter.com/aoscruggs Afi Scruggs

    Black -on-black crime has roiled the African American community for at least 20 years. Unfortunately efforts around that issue haven’t been reported in MSM, for the reason’s I’ve mentioned about.

  • http://blog.scoop0901.net/ Scoop0901

     Now the black community needs to start focusing JUST AS, IF NOT MORE HEAVILY n black-on-black and black-on-others violence and murders, not just on a Hispanic-on-black shooting.

  • http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20120203002729AAKIhvK Overstock Coupon Code

    I think people have disconnected from this fact: a kid was just walking home and suddenly this guy is chasing him with a gun.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SWXFW3EWUOFQKRG5SZ54HRTR6A con d

     EXACTLY he was suspended from school for 5 days and no one will release his records or a recent photo….  trayvon was belligerent  feral and racist…..he should never have even been there in the gated community in the first place if he was a good kid.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/7CLEQWSYENOBLHCK2ENCJAB6Y4 Baria

    I don’t like hearing that this situation is on account of racism because it is what we all do toward each other and are guilty of it.  It is obvious that Zimmerman should be arrested for his careless act in taking another human life when his was not truly in danger just because the young man may have said something that was truly disrespectful.  

    Sticks and stones my hurt me, so with words, but know this that Love kindles the flame of anger before it reaches the killing stage.  ”All we need is Love in the world to cure mankind.”

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/7CLEQWSYENOBLHCK2ENCJAB6Y4 Baria

    I don’t like hearing that this situation is on account of racism because it is what we all do toward each other and are guilty of it.  It is obvious that Zimmerman should be arrested for his careless act in taking another human life when his was not truly in danger just because the young man may have said something that was truly disrespectful.  

    Sticks and stones my hurt me, so with words, but know this that Love kindles the flame of anger before it reaches the killing stage.  ”All we need is Love in the world to cure mankind.”

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/7CLEQWSYENOBLHCK2ENCJAB6Y4 Baria

    “Parents” let your children know these scriptures to not be accountable for their actions in the eyes of GOD:

    Ephesian 6:1 – Children, be obedient to your parents in union with the Lord, for this is righteous.  2 – Honor your father and your mother, which is the  first command with a promise. 3 – That it may go well with you and you may endure a long time on the earth.

    Need I say no more to this matter.  We have many young people who are so disrespectful to anyone and it is sad to say that some of us adults don’t have patience with disrespectful young people and decipher that it is better to take their life.  The problem with our young people is what the government is allowing in our society (loose and immoral conduct on television, radio, billboards, clothing, celebrities, sports, and much much more.”  

    It is if we are doomed…II3:16 – Know this, ” in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here.  2 – For men, women, and children (for the most) will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self-assuming, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parent or adults, unthankful, disloyal, 3 – having no natural affection, not open to any agreement, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, without love of goodness, 4 – betrayers, headstrong, puffed up [with pride], lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of GOD. 5 – having a form of GODLY devotion, but proving false to its power; and from these types of attitude one must turn away from or suffer the consequences.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/7CLEQWSYENOBLHCK2ENCJAB6Y4 Baria

    I believe that Trayvon said something so disrespectful to Zimmerman that Zimmerman became very angry for the disrespect that Zimmerman choose to take Trayvon’s life.  I’m willing to bet that Trayvon was a very mischievous child recently and that he was not always that way.  Zimmerman was wrong and so was Trayvon to go to the extent to disrespect someone he doesn’t even know.  Sad to say that this young man has meet his fate in an unfortunate way in the wrong place.  ”What did Trayvon do to deserve this fate?  Zimmerman should be arrested for killing Trayvon because there was no probable cause for him to rely on suspicion without facts.”

  • http://miraclefootrepairsite.com/staples-coupon-code-staples-coupons-staples-promo-code/ Staples Coupon Code

    This was a senseless and heartless killing.
    Zimmerman should be locked up. If they don’t do anything how many other
    people will lose their lives?
     

  • http://twitter.com/aoscruggs Afi Scruggs

    “Before social media came to dominate our lives, I’d like to believe that
    traditional media would have demanded justice for Trayvon…”

    Given my experience as an African American reporter in a newspaper, I don’t believe that at all. When it came to stories about African American males and crime or homicide,  I and my minority colleagues often had a hell of a time getting our superiors to abandon their stereotypes.

    That’s why I disagree with Mark Russell’s assertion that staffing was the reason the paper belatedly realized the power of the story. (Full disclosure, I worked for Mark Russell in Cleveland.) I’ve unfortunately found that mainstream media usually dismisses or ignores events in minority communities. Reporters often don’t cultivate sources or write in-depth thoughtful stories that build trust  and credibility. When a story explodes – like this one – the reporters rush in and wonder why they’re greeted with resistance, skepticism and hostility.

    That’s why social media is the best thing that has happened to the African American community. It’s become an effective tool for disseminating information and wielding power.