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How a crime becomes political: Trayvon Martin and the way different media co-create the news

A new paper out of MIT’s Center for Civic Media uses Media Cloud and other tools to map how the story of Trayvon Martin’s death was told — and evolved.

The shooting of Trayvon Martin was one of the biggest stories of 2012. But it didn’t start out that way — it began as just another local crime story, and without a number of key points of amplification along the way, it could have easily remained one. How did the death of a black Florida teen become what the Pew Research Center says was the most covered news story with a racial component in the past five years?

Three researchers at the MIT Center for Civic Media published a paper this week that tries to answer that qustion. “The Battle for ‘Trayvon Martin’: Mapping a Media Controversy On- and Offline” tracks how the event was covered immediately after Martin’s death, and over the following days and weeks as the story ascended from local broadcast news to national newspapers and the web.

The paper’s authors — Erhardt Graeff, Matt Stempeck, and Ethan Zuckerman — were specifically interested in determining how alternative and participatory media might have influenced the narrative arc of the Trayvon Martin story. The idea for the paper was sparked by a blog post Stempeck wrote in 2012. “This seemed like a good opportunity to look at a different kind of event,” Graeff said: “a crime story that had ballooned into a much larger set of issues.” As the authors put it:

Our primary research objective was to understand the relative prominence and importance of online and offline media at different points in the Trayvon Martin story. We also find a couple of general principles which may apply in stories beyond this specific case. Namely, that broadcast media is still important as an amplifier and gatekeeper, but that it is susceptible to media activists working through participatory media to co-create the news and influence the framing of major controversies.

To achieve this goal, the authors relied on a number of distinct datasets. To measure engagement on social platforms, they looked at individual tweets and the hashtags that united them. To monitor TV coverage, they pulled in closed-captioning transcripts. They tracked Google searches for both “Trayvon Martin” and “George Zimmerman,” his killer. In addition to measuring frequency of appearances in print media, they also measured front-page appearances “as a percentage of total physical column-inches on the front page of The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Post.” Looking at the click rates on Bitly links helped them understand the role that race-specific media played in the spread of the story. They also compared those datasets with the growing number of signatures on a petition that begin circulating on March 8, 2012.

But the central tool in executing the project was Media Cloud, a project from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society that collects and analyzes both mainstream and alternative, digital news streams — its functions include “media definition, crawling, text extraction, word vectoring, and analysis.” Out of the over 27,000 sources Media Cloud draws on, 1,570 were relevant to the timeframe of the research question, February 26 to April 30, 2012. (The research didn’t deal with Zimmerman’s trial or its coverage in the media.) From those, Media Cloud ultimately found 359 sources, with a total of 5,665 stories, that were relevant to the story following Martin’s death.

Prior to this research, Media Cloud was used by Harvard’s Yochai Benkler, one of its designers, to track media coverage of the SOPA-PIPA debate and to map that controversy via links throughout the media ecosystem. Benkler found that digital media like Reddit, Techdirt, and “were the most influential sources in the media ecosystem as ranked by incoming links, overshadowing the impact of traditional media sources.” But as the authors point out, Benkler’s subject matter was inherently Internet-centric; with this paper, they sought to repeat the controversy mapping on a less natively digital subject.

The researchers present their findings by breaking the Trayvon Martin story into five acts. The first spans February 26 to March 6, during which time the story did not make it beyond of Florida media. Local TV news covered it, followed in the following days by stories in the Orlando Sentinel and The Miami Herald. “The news story, initially framed as a fight between two people in an area known for occasional violence, stood little chance of attracting significant media attention,” the authors write.


Network of interlinked media during Act II.

The second act is where we first meet Benjamin Crump, the civil rights attorney Martin’s family retained, and the publicist Crump hired, Ryan Julison. It was through Julison’s efforts that national news outlets, including Reuters and CBS, got wind of mounting concerns over details in the case — for example, why was Zimmerman carrying a gun? From there, the paper argues, digital platforms like The Huffington Post and the Black Youth Project began to amplify the story, but with the addition of significant misinformation.

It’s also in this stage that the circulation of the petition began to grow exponentially. With 217 signatures its first day, it grew to 2,492 the next day, picking up thousands a day before nearly reaching 13,000 on March 13. The paper also notes that celebrities sharing the petition on Twitter caused a 900 percent spike in traffic between March 12 and 15.

The third act, from March 16 to 22, saw the release of the audio file documenting the last few moments before Martin died. That audio provided what the authors call an “actuality” for TV and radio broadcasters to build a story around, which is why mainstream media is the central focus of this phase.

"Effect of 911 tapes on media attention — general rise on all media channels on 17 March, with notable spikes in Media Cloud stories (light blue) and Television coverage (green) on 18 March."

The effect of the 911 tapes on media attention: a general rise across all media channels on March 17, with notable spikes in Media Cloud stories (light blue) and television coverage (green) on March 18.

At the same time, protests started popping up in Florida, New York City, and London, providing “actualities” for newspapers, leading to the first national front-page story about Martin on March 22.

Then came the peak in Martin coverage in Act IV, from March 23 to April 10. It was during this period that President Obama weighed in with his comment on racial profiling. After that, Graeff says, “We see this kind of open season for political actors trying to use the attention dedicated to this story for political gain.” On the left, activists tried to use Trayvon Martin to advance their gun law legislation.


The network of interlinked media during Act IV.

Then, conservative bloggers at sites like sought to push back by searching for evidence of “a troubled youth” in Martin’s social media profiles. This pursuit eventually led to The Miami Herald publishing a story describing an incident in which Martin was suspended for carrying a bag of marijuana. Though conservative bloggers could not prove Martin was a drug dealer, they were successful in getting the mainstream media to address that claim. This led liberal, digital media such as ThinkProgress and Gothamist to complain about the tactic “at the level of metanarrative, covering the coverage of the claim.”

Finally, in Act V, the authors argue that pressure from across the media ecosystems led authorities in Florida to take Zimmerman into custody. This once again provided the news hook necessary to spark a mainstream news cycle, with front-page coverage peaking the day after his arrest. Simultaneously, Google searches for “George Zimmerman” reached a high, as those who had managed to ignore the story previously sought context.

figure 13, zuckerman


“Cable news channels FOX News and MSNBC aired a series of character attacks, while HLN’s Nancy Grace weighed in on whether or not Zimmerman cried in his jail cell,” the authors write. The spike in broadcast coverage, it’s important to note, outlasted Google searches, Media Cloud mentions, and newspaper front pages. “Like Hollywood’s penchant for sequels to popular film franchises, it’s possible that once a story and its characters have been introduced, it’s relatively frictionless for TV news programs to return with greater frequency to the story,” write the authors.

What can observers of media learn from this story? “We realized that the broadcast media were key to driving attention to this story, which is counter to the popular narrative that we’ve been putting together over the last few years about the networked public sphere,” Graeff says.

But at the same time, they learned broadcast and the rest of the mainstream media are highly susceptible to the agenda-setting of digital and alternative media: “We believe the national attention brought to the story through broadcast media allowed groups like the Black Youth Project to amplify stories to their online communities, and informed actors like [Kevin] Cunningham who launched campaigns like the petition,” the researchers argue.

They also believe that digital activists are getting better at manipulating the media, promoting their own agendas and challenging official narratives. Newspapers, in turn, are vulnerable to this type of direction because of their reliance on newsy “actualities” like protests or other events.

They also found the extent to which communication on social platforms became a part of the broader media narrative significant — for example, when Howard University students released their “Am I suspicious?” video on YouTube. Write the authors:

In our study, social media’s role in agenda-setting is more complicated. Attention to the Martin killing comes initially from professional news outlets. However, online communities demonstrate agenda-setting power both by organizing protests like the Million Hoodie Marches and by influencing online dialog, suggesting alternative interpretations of events.

Our work suggests a mechanism through which social media users introduce potentially deviant frames into the mainstream: they harness ideas to a high attention story already underway and attempt to direct the attention generated by the story towards their interpretations and views.

Going forward, this study provides an interesting foundation for thinking about how our media are interrelated, and how various facts, anecdotes, and bits of misinformation make their way to the public.

“Can we start exploring the data not from identifying these topics of keywords upfront, but asking an algorithm to surface some of those for us?” asks Graeff. “What are some unusual things or clusters of news stories that will allow us to get a sense of news stories that otherwise wouldn’t be seen?”

In the future, Graeff says he’d like to be able to better track geography and know where stories are being published and talked about. The team is also interested in using natural language processing to track the spread of quotations from source to source. In addition, “automated coding and sentiment analysis” could be used to better understand how perspectives in the newsroom are molding stories — tools like OpenGender Tracker.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a suite of tools that activists, journalists, and academics can learn from. Says Graeff: “A lot of what we show here is that there are better methods for studying the media as a so-called media ecosystem that allow us to really understand how a story goes from barely a blip to a major national/international news event, and how controversies circle around that.”

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  • Junior Samples

    The main problem here has been the focus on irrelevant arguments – some of which are actually unsupported by the evidence.

    1. ‘George Zimmerman (GZ) racially profiled Trayvon Martin (TM)’ There is no evidence of this.

    2. ‘GZ disobeyed an order by the police’ * The civilian dispatcher, Sean Noffke, testified that he did not give GZ an order and, in fact, he, like his fellow dispatchers, are trained not make comments that sound like commands. * Noffke also testified under cross that, as a result of his asking GZ which way TM was going, GZ could have reasonably interpreted this as being asked to follow Martin. * It is also not a crime in Florida to disregard a comment made by a civilian dispatcher.

    3. ‘GZ got out of his car’ Not a crime on public property and not negligent either.

    4. ‘GZ followed TM’ Again, anyone can follow anyone on a public street unless the followee has obtained a restraining order against the follower and even there, the RS only places time, place, and manner restrictions on the person enjoined.

    5. ‘GZ wasn’t really injured’ * Under Florida’s self-defense laws, one doesn’t have to be injured AT ALL to use deadly force * No one is required to refrain from defending himself while another is engaged in or attempting to commit a felony.

    6. ‘TM is dead through no fault of his own’ * If you believe that TM assaulted GZ, then he IS dead as a result of his own actions.

    7. ‘GZ could have left’ * Under Florida law, there is not a duty to withdraw rather than use deadly force * TM was straddling GZ so how the latter was supposed to leave the scene is unanswered.

    8. ‘GZ was armed and TM wasn’t’ * One’s fists can be considered weapons and can result in severe bodily harm or death. * GZ was legally carrying a weapon * There is no requirement under the law that the same weapon be used by the assailant * A homeowner can kill an intruder whether or not he has been threatened * Those that attack cannot feign surprise if they are met with superior firepower.

    9. ‘Stand Your Ground!’ * SYG is NOT at issue in this trial. * The defense is a classic self-defense case.

    10. ‘Black men NEVER get to use SYG!’ * Wrong

    11. ‘GZ is a man and TM was a boy!’ * As if ‘boys’ don’t commit murder, rape, and assault everyday in this country.

  • Robert Riversong

    Those are all good points, but are irrelevant to this story, which is about the development and spread of media coverage.

    What is relevant here is that the misinformation in mainstream media coverage did not begin until the Martin family lawyers and publicist got involved and took the initiative to create their own narrative, which was “amplified” by sites such as Huffington Post and the Black Youth Project.

    It was only after the dissemination of a false (or at least contrived) narrative that the conservative sites came on board as a counterweight.

  • Robert Riversong

    This exemplary study is, perhaps, one of the most important stories to come out of this incident, and maps in detail how a minor event was deliberately manipulated into a national and international news story with ramifications far beyond the actual elements of the incident – such as racial profiling, Stand Your Ground laws, and racial discrimination in, or ineffectiveness of, the legal system.

    What it proves, beyond any reasonable doubt, is that it was the intervention of the Martin family legal and PR team which caused enough noise to disseminate a contrived narrative, containing substantial misinformation, into the public domain.

    And, just as importantly, it was not until after the Black and Left alternative media ran with the false narrative that the conservative blog sites entered the fray to challenge and counteract what had then become a national mainstream disinformation campaign.

    Then, some of the Left media, instead of investigating the veracity of the counter-claims, instead attacked the sources of those claims or attacked the claims as “misinformation” or “character assassination” while ignoring their own complicity in spreading misinformation willfully created by the Martin Family Team.

    [Lest anyone assume that I'm part of that "right-wing conspiracy", let me state that I have been a peace and social justice activist for most of my six decades.]

  • Justice Delivered

    Like Mr. Riverside, I have a long history of working issues like First Amendment rights, stopping various forms of consumer fraud, exposing product safety hazards and devoting most of my time for well over twenty years to community service. Historically I had been a Democrat, A big part of my efforts were directed at identifying and countering big business stealth media campaigns.

    What drew my attention to this case was the media campaign. Everything in my experience has taught me to look at such campaigns with a jaded eye. In every case, those conducting such campaigns have been players of dubious repute.

    I have not in well over sixty years ever seen such a rabid and obvious case of libel-defamation on such a large scale. I my view, it ranks right next to McCarthyism, something which media still has not addressed.

    Allowing political prosecutions, getting people fired from their jobs and blacklisted, a pretty obvious profit motive and more are all reasons for concern.

    I do appreciate this study, it will be useful for reigning in what I see as a very nasty group of people. Their campaign continues and seems to be expanding, they need to be held accountable.

  • Mark Dietzler

    You cannot bring up McCarthy without admitting that he has been proven utterly and completely correct in his accusations after the fall of the Soviet Union and the publication Venona Intercepts.
    McCarthy was right, there was a large conspiracy of Soviet agents and fellow travelers within the State Department.
    In this case, it is a professional media team feeding a narrative to a news business that believed what they were sold merely because it matched the internal bias by the editors and reporters.
    This is the real story of the Martin case. How one man was able to cause so much trouble because he knew what to say to gullible media outlets who are so willing to believe a story is true because it aligns with their philosophical beliefs.

  • Justice Delivered

    The problem was that McCarthy swept up vast numbers of innocent people, and even when they were not innocent they were effectively denied due

    The Martin Scheme Team and like minded people are doing the same with people today.

    Evidence is clear, Trayvon Martin was assaulting
    Zimmerman, especially the head smashing represented a grave threat, and there was only one reasonable response to stop that threat.

    Yet we have a fairly large group circumventing rule of law. That needs to be stopped, NOW.

    Responsible parties need to be prosecuted, civilly and criminally.

  • AghastinFL

    Two quotes that harken back to a previous debate you and I shared some months ago…
    “The President’s statement brought the already heavily covered story to a crescendo across every data source we tracked, consistent with Galtung and Ruge’s (1965) theories about attention paid to nation’s leaders versus ordinary citizens. The day following Obama’s statement brought hundreds of blog posts, tens of thousands of tweets, continued strong TV coverage, front page stories in national newspapers, and shortly afterwards, the petition passed the two million signatures mark.”
    “The actions taken online and off–line, the incendiary comments by pundit Geraldo Rivera, and the President’s statement broadened the story beyond the focus on the events of 26 February.”

    We have differing views on the President’s words but the data related to it’s effect is undeniable.

  • Robert Riversong

    Obama’s initial and very cautious statement came only after the event had taken on national proportions and there is no evidence that his measured comments had any significant effect on news coverage.

    3/7/2012 – Reuters writes about the case; more national coverage soon follows.
    3/8/2012 – Martin’s father holds press conference criticizing SPD investigation.
    3/9/2012 – Benjamin Crump, attorney for the Martin family, announces he is filing a lawsuit to get the public records released
    3/13/2012 – SPD announces case turned over to State Attorney Norm Wolfinger, NAACP sends letter to U.S. Department of Justice.
    3/20/2012 – U.S. Department of Justice announces investigation.
    3/22/2012 – Obama said during a press conference in response to a question, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” But he prefaced his remarks by saying he had “to be careful about my statements to make sure that we’re not impairing any investigation that’s taking place right now.”


    Evidence? LOL the anti gun, anti white crowd doesn’t need no stinkin evidence. No matter how hard Trayvon tried to cave in Zim’s head, Zim had no right to kill saint skittles. he bees a good boy and sheeit

  • Sage Basil

    Are we trying to map the social networks that spin, promote, spin, promote, spin, promote these stories? What I remember from hanging out with Occupy activists was fliers of disingenuous talking points being distributed and quoted like a Telephone game, while skepticism got you yelled at. I don’t think Occupy heard about Troy Davis, the cop killer they marched for, from any kind of semi-responsible media – if they had, they might have actually known something about the case. Barack Obama almost certainly heard about Trayvon Martin case in such an unhinged report from the grape vine, which is how he ended up putting his foot in his mouth (“If I had a son…”).

    I don’t really think the social network goes through the minor media sources, or even HuffPo. I think Facebook pages and Twitter feeds are more important to getting the message out.

  • Kenny Powers

    you are clearly a racist cracker ass. shame on you bigot,

  • Robert Riversong

    Did you just come out of a 19-day crack coma?

  • Kenny Powers

    You are an avowed racist riversong. why are you concealing you comment history? you dont know about social justice….yet.