This is a summary of the article “The Battle for ‘Trayvon
Martin’: Mapping a Media Controversy Online and Offline,” co-authored by
Erhardt Graeff, Matt Stempeck, and Ethan Zuckerman and appearing as the lead
article in the February 2014 issue of First Monday: http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4947.
News coverage about the killing of Trayvon Martin started as a short-lived, local
Florida news piece, but through strategic activation of traditional broadcast media and
participatory online activism, eventually became
the most-widely covered story about race in the last five years. The story drew
immense coverage from professional journalists and active public engagement online and
offline, offering a potent case study for examining the role and influence of
participatory media on media agendas.
To make this research possible, we’ve been building Media Cloud with colleagues at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and
Society. It’s a toolset for rigorous, quantitative studies of media agendas
and frames. Media Cloud collects stories from a corpus of more than 27,000 mainstream
media and blog sources, and uses a link-following methodology to expand the corpus to
other relevant sources.
The first major
analysis to use Media Cloud’s tools for the purposes of “controversy
mapping” considered the emergence in nontraditional, online media of opposition
to proposed SOPA-PIPA legislation. In contrast to SOPA-PIPA, the Trayvon Martin story
occurred and unfolded substantially offline: the shooting of a black teenager
eventually sparked a national debate across multiple media channels, in rallies and
marches, and in the speeches and actions of major political figures. Initially, the
story passed with little notice, but the efforts of a small pro bono team of
lawyers and publicists attracted the national limelight. From there, the Trayvon Martin
story spread to broader audiences through a widely signed online petition, 24x7 cable
news coverage, multiple activist campaigns including competing political agendas pushed
by participatory media, a deeply emotional response from President Obama, and a widely
televised criminal trial.