Trayvon Martin Media Coverage Takes on a Tabloid Tone

Trayvon Martin Media Coverage Takes on a Tabloid Tone

My piece on Trayvon Martin ended up getting a lot of attention, and, as part of that attention, some questions about why I didn't address the role of coverage by African American media outlets. I'd like to address that missing element, and ask for your help in fleshing it out. The short version is that my study looked at the early coverage, and I can't find any examples of African American media coverage predating this March 7th Reuters article. Help me be wrong with links in the comments!

Never Assume A Shared News Experience

My focus in the original piece was to answer the question: How did Trayvon Martin become national news long after the normal media window had closed? As a result, I focused on the early coverage, and any and all sources that took the story from Sanford, Florida news to the most-talked-about thing on Twitter. Until anyone can show me otherwise, the data shows that it was, in fact, the boring old national mainstream media that brought national attention to the story. And worse yet, it was boring old publicity work and sympathetic employees at mainstream media companies that earned the media coverage.

People who respond, "But I saw [Group X] on Twitter talking about this," are falling into the same trap I started in, where I assumed that my experience of the news (and memory of month-old tweets) was empirically accurate. People experience the news in very personal ways; they remember where they were, and where they first saw a story. But the days where your experience is indicative of the norm are over, because there's less and less of a norm to begin with. If you get news on Twitter, it's likely that your media diet is highly personalized. After hunting down the early coverage, it turned out that all of the progressives I follow on Twitter were talking about the story well after Reuters and CBS had told millions of us about it. I still argue that there's immense value to the Twitter conversation and the sharing-is-caring model of audience engagement in the news, but you can't argue that your experience is the common experience, or even historically accurate, if you can't back it up with examples or data.

The New York Times' coverage-of-the-coverage that I relied on does point to African American individuals in national newsrooms working to personally ensure the story got attention:

"On this story, there is a certain degree of understanding that comes from minorities, and particularly African-Americans, just because we’ve lived it," said Don Lemon, a CNN weekend anchor who has covered the case extensively for the last two weekends. He recalled that in a planning meeting for his program, one of his producers, a black mother of two teenage boys, was "almost in tears" as she said, "We’ve got to do something on this story." As the case was catapulted onto the national agenda and calls for Mr. Zimmerman’s arrest increased, prominent black journalists and commentators wrote about it in highly personal terms.

These incidents only underscore the importance of diversity in the newsroom. The ensuing media firestorm alone can attest that this is clearly a story worthy of national attention.

My inability to find early coverage within the African American media is NOT to say that these outlets didn't play an important part in the story's evolution. I'd love to read an analysis of this role written by someone more knowledgeable about black community media than myself.

Our Media Analysis Toolkit is Limited

I'd also be happy to be wrong about the early coverage, so by all means, if you have examples of Trayvon Martin coverage prior to the March 7th syndicated Reuters story, please share them! I have yet to find African American media coverage prior to March 7th, though. I've limited Google Search to the time period in question, 2/27/12 - 3/7/12, and scoured the results. Many African American media websites show up, but upon clicking through, the pages in question are unrelated stories that have been returned in the results because of much more recent Trayvon Martin coverage elsewhere on the page (this is a major flaw with Google's time-based Search tool, and effectively means I haven't look at every single page in the results). I'm also eagerly waiting for the MediaCloud database to be updated to reflect the weeks in question, and the team there has added Trayvon as a tracking topic for us.

This entire study has proven to be an exercise in how difficult it is to quantify who covers what and who consumes what in an increasingly fragmented media universe. There are some significant challenges in quantifying media coverage, and it's a problem our group at MIT is obsessed with solving. In addition to the sheer number of media companies, we also have participatory media. In addition to participatory media, we also have a lot of communication happening on closed and private channels, like Facebook and email listservs. These media are clearly influential, but their closed nature makes it enormously difficult for Google (or some random Master's student) to track their influence.

Trayvon Coverage Takes on a Tabloid Tone

My inital study also ends at the petition delivery date, February 26th, because by this point it's clear that the Trayvon Martin story is well established. There's certainly also value in looking at how the coverage has evolved since that day. Sasha Costanza-Chock has pointed out the role of street rallies in keeping the story in the media's spotlight, but my understanding is that most, if not all, of the rallies occurred well after the media had started paying attention.

Nancy Grace's top topicsThe cable news channels and political radio, in particular, haven't needed rallies as an excuse to continue covering the story. America loves a good murder trial, and same metropolitan Orlando area which brought us Casey Anthony is now preparing for another widely-followed trial. The coverage has grown increasingly tabloid, as Fox News and MSNBC exchange volleys attacking Martin and Zimmerman's character, and Nancy Grace of CNN weighs in on whether or not Zimmerman is crying in jail. Every detail and wrinkle of a development is now covered, leading to understandable public fatigue with the hourly coverage of the story only a month after it was rescued from obscurity.

For weeks now, organizers have been attempting to shift the focus from this individual case to the systemic changes we'd like to see around the culture of racial profiling and shoot-first laws (for example, see Nancy Scola's excellent coverage of organizers' success taking on the conservative group ALEC that promoted the Stand Your Ground laws in many states). I'd argue that the tabloid tone of the media coverage actively detracts from this long-term work, by not only distracting the audience from the root issues, but also diluting the emotional and moral value of the incident that started this conversation. The nature of the coverage has clearly shifted, from an activist endeavor to ensure the world knows Trayvon's name, to a game of armchair jury duty. Jelani Cobb puts it more eloquently than I can:

If the wheels of justice grind slowly, the court of public opinion expedites its verdicts. It takes far less than 46 days for a teachable moment to devolve into an airing of fetid undercurrents from the American id. In an instant the case pitched from tragedy to travesty to absurdist spectacle, the judgments coming far faster than the facts.

I believe that public perception of the organized rallies and Million Hoodie Marches are harmed by the current obsessive tabloid coverage.

Following this story has made clear that there's an "Indie Band Effect" with regards to media coverage of a given story. People who came to the story early, before most of the world was talking about Trayvon Martin, were passionate about the story and gave it their and their tweets. Those who heard about it later see that it's already heavily covered by the media, and are less passionate about what the story represents. There are probably a thousand other factors at play in these two groups of the audience (including race and other predispositions to care / not care), but it's an effect I'm going to keep my eye on and attempt to quantify someday.

My attempts at analysis have also further made clear that we need better tools to understand who's learning about what issues when. A fragmented media ecosystem is great for amplifying more voices, among other things, but it sure was easier to track Walter Cronkite's Nielsen ratings. Back to work on MediaMeter, I suppose. But one last note from Cobb, on why it's so important that we figure this stuff out:

In announcing her decision, [special prosecutor] Corey was careful to point out that her office “does not bring charges in response to public demand.” Her words only further undermined the regard for the justice system. Prior to the placards, Trayvon Martin was an anonymous black boy, fatally shot and treated as a John Doe in the morgue. There are people in Sanford and in black communities across the country who live with the hard knowledge that in cases like this, public outcry may be their only hope of attaining justice.