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.)
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.”
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.
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.