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How Media and Social Networks Used Trayvon Martin to Fan the Flames of Controversy | Top Secret Writers
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How Media and Social Networks Used Trayvon Martin to Fan the Flames of Controversy

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How Media and Social Networks Used Trayvon Martin to Fan the Flames of Controversy

On February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down in Sanford, Florida. The African American high school student had been visiting his father’s fiancée in a Twin Lakes housing development. The gated community had experienced a string of burglaries. Sometime between the store and the housing development, Martin was reportedly followed by George Zimmerman.

28-year-old Zimmerman was the neighborhood watch coordinator for the gated community. An altercation broke out between the two men, which in his subsequent testimony Zimmerman claims was initiated by Martin. Zimmerman shot Martin, who was unarmed. Police arrived at the scene almost immediately. Martin was taken to hospital and was pronounced dead on arrival.

Zimmerman was taken into police custody and treated for head injuries. After several hours of questioning, Zimmerman was released without charges. Stating he acted in self-defense, under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, police were prohibited from arresting the shooter.

The Stand Your Ground statute states a person may use deadly force in self-defense “without the duty to retreat when faced with a reasonable perceived threat”.

The law was controversial from the outset and caused tempers to flare as the public took sides. Zimmerman claimed Martin was on top of him, beating him and he was simply trying to defend his life, while others pointed to the fact that Martin was armed with nothing more than a packet of Skittles and iced tea.

Media Involvement

What’s particularly interesting about the Trayvon Martin case is how it was delineated in the media. Initially the shooting made local news’ headlines, which were short-lived and retained within local boundaries. However, through strategic activation of traditional broadcast news and participatory media activism, as Monica Anderson, researcher at the Pew Research Center said, the story “eventually became the most widely covered stories with a strong racial component of the last five years”.

Due to the prolific coverage of the story by both online and offline forms of media and the engagement it sparked, the killing of Trayvon Martin has been used as a case study for examining the role and influence of different forms of media. The study explores how professional media and social media fed off each other. It also looks at how PR people have learned to exploit this dual-media frenzy.

The case study is titled “The Battle for ‘Trayvon Martin’: Mapping a Media Controversy Online and Off-line”. It was compiled by Erhartz Graeff, Matt Stempeck and Ethan Zuckerman, researchers of the MIT Center for Civic Media. It is published on FirstMonday.org, a peer-reviewed online journal. The study refers to contemporary media as “ecosystems” rather than environments in order to emphasize that modern media is not monolithic or strictly hierarchical.

The gist of the study is that despite being one of the biggest news stories of 2012, Trayvon Martin’s murder, almost disappeared from public view before becoming mainstream news. After initially receiving cursory local media coverage, the authors argue the story gained widespread attention and controversy due to one savvy publicist. The astute publicist worked on behalf of the victim’s parents through a series of online and offline campaigns.

trayvon martin protests

Social PR Teams up with Traditional Media

Upset that an arrest had not been made for their son’s killing, Martin’s parents contacted an attorney to help with the case. A subsequent attorney asked publicist Ryan Julison for help with the case. Julison contacted several national media outlets about covering the story. In the ensuing weeks, the likes of CNN, Reuters, ABC World News and CBS This Morning began to report about the shooting. The national news coverage was backed by a social media frenzy. The Miami Herald reported that in the 30 days following the shooting, the name “Trayvon” was tweeted more than two million times.

In the wake of the widespread news reports, Kevin Cunningham, a social media coordinator who read about Martin’s death, created a petition on Change.org. Change.org is the world’s largest petition platform with more than 50 million users in 196 countries. When Cunningham created an online petition requesting Martin’s killer to be prosecuted, it quickly became the largest petition in Change.org’s history. The petition generated more than 2.2 million signatures in just a few weeks.

As we wrote in 2011, internet activists played a crucial role in the pro-democracy revolution of 2011. The likes of Hossam al-Hamalawy, a prominent blogger and social activist, became more influential than ever during the revolution of 2011. Interestingly Cunningham said he “fell in love” and was inspired by social media during the Egyptian revolution.

According to a report on NBC News, Cunningham thought Martin’s murder could emerge as a similar situation as the death of Khaled Said. Said was of course the young Egyptian who died under “disputed circumstances” after being arrested by Egyptian police in 2010. Cunningham felt similar to Khaled Said’s death, Martin’s could revolutionize the justice system and trigger a revolution of society.

zimmerman night of shooting

Savvy PR Results in National Outcry

After the national media focused on the story, national debate about self-defense laws and racial profiling developed.

Protests and marches were held throughout the United States. On March 21, the Million Hoodie March was held in New York City. Thousands of protesters turned up wearing hoodies to represent their support for Martin and disdain for profiling against non-white youths who wear hoodies.

Graeff, Stempeck and Zuckerman’s report examines how the scale of coverage by both professionals (the likes of Reuters, ABC News et al) and the non-professionals (Kevin Cunningham) and the engagement of the story both online and offline, played a potent role in fanning the flames of controversy and harnessing advocacy campaigns to news stories.

The paper refers to Benkler who describes a “networked public sphere” as an “internet-enabled shift away from a mass-mediated public sphere”. Benkler’s theory is based on “the increasing freedom individuals enjoy to participate in creating information and knowledge”. This new complex media ecosystem involve participatory media having a potentially equal standing as “gatekeepers and agenda-setters with mainstream media sources”.

In layman terms, as the world saw when three influential social media activists played a pivotal role in removing Hosni Mubarak and his 30 years of dictatorship, in the case of Trayvon Martin, professional traditional media and new participatory forms of social media fed off each other to generate international outcry.

Savvy PRs are learning to exploit these new and complex media ecosystems. As we saw with the 2.2 million signatures the petition to prosecute Trayvon Martin’s killer generated, the savviest of contemporary PRs are exploiting modern and traditional forms of media with maximum results.

Image Credits:

(1) Nathan Congleton via Compfight cc
(2) Greg Lilly Photos via photopin cc
(3) Wikipedia: Zimmerman on Night of Shooting

Originally published on TopSecretWriters.com

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Ryan is the founder of Top Secret Writers. He is an IT analyst, blogger, journalist, and a researcher for the truth behind strange stories.
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