Mapping the Trayvon Martin Media Controversy | MIT Center for Civic Media

Mapping the Trayvon Martin Media Controversy

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

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.


To understand the full arc of the Trayvon Martin story, we extended and refined the SOPA-PIPA study’s website-focused methodology. First, we collected data from a diverse range of social and professional media sources to analyze the story, looking at the volume of references to the story: in hashtags and individual tweets on Twitter; on television news’s closed caption transcripts (using’s TVNews archive); in Google searches for the two main subjects; in front page coverage in national newspapers (using PageOneX); and through online actions by the public in the form of petition signatures. Conceiving of the media ecosystem as a network demanded a network analysis approach to influence, for which we used Gephi and the PageRank algorithm. We complemented and informed the direction of our quantitative analysis by interviewing media activists involved in the early stages of the Trayvon Martin controversy.

Summary of Data Collected for Period of February 26–April 30, 2012

Data for
Total Period
Spark line (normalized intensity over time)
Media Cloud Articles/Posts 8,643 490
(23 Mar)
Front Page Newspaper Coverage (%) 1.91
(12 Apr)
Broadcast Television Mentions 2,764 117
(10 Apr)
Google Searches for ‘Trayvon Martin’ (%) 18.2
(average relative to peak)
(24 Mar)
Google Searches for ‘George Zimmerman’ (%) 6.4
(average relative to ‘Trayvon Martin’ peak)
(11 Apr)
Tweets 374,690 74,247
(24 Mar) Petition Signatures 2,038,557 457,775
(22 Mar)
bitly Clicks 1,233,899 101,879
(23 Mar)

In order to directly compare volumes of attention to each other and appreciate the general ebbs and flows in attention paid to the story, we normalized the volumes of each media type per day according to their own peak, and then graphed them along a timeline.

Figure 1: Normalized Histogram of Collected Data

We broke this timeline into five “acts” based on pivotal events that served as catalysts of major events, as well as content of the most heavily cited stories in our Media Cloud corpus.


Act I: Not a Story (February 26–March 6)

The day after Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, February 27th, the shooting death was covered, like many crime stories, by a local television news channel. It appeared on Fox 35 Orlando's news program. On February 29th, the Orlando Sentinel ran a story. On March 2nd, The Miami Herald picked up the story. After that, nearly a week passed without any additional press mentions. After this small amount of local coverage, we would expect the story to be over, as the news cycle had moved on.

Act II: Building Pressure (March 7–15)

Figure 2: Network of Interlinked Media during Act II

The second “act” of the story begins on March 7th and 8th, ten days after Martin's death, when the story received a new wave of media attention from two of the national media's largest outlets: the Reuters newswire and the CBS program This Morning. This resurgence in interest was the direct result of efforts to publicize the story: Martin’s family was able to enlist the legal services of civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump on a pro bono basis. Crump brought on local lawyer Natalie Jackson and publicist Ryan Julison.

Within a day of joining the effort, Julison began reaching out to the largest national media sources (as measured by audience reach) and worked his way down until he found interest from Reuters and CBS This Morning. This mainstream media coverage helped Julison and Crump generate more stories, but also brought the story to the attention of an online audience. One reader, Kevin Cunningham, saw the Reuters piece shared on a Howard University email listserv. Frustrated by the relative paucity of media coverage and incensed by the lack of justice, he began a petition on March 8th.

Our graphs show that alongside local coverage of the now national story—most prominently NBC affiliate WESH—Race-based media led by Global Grind, and to a lesser extent activist outlets ColorOfChange and the Black Youth Project, played key roles during this act. ‘Trayvon Martin’ appeared on Google Trends on March 8th for the first time. The petition (the most prominent gray node in the graph above) gained a significant increase in signatures following this continued interest for the story (indicated by the searches), making it an early leader in relative media attention according to our normalized histogram.

On March 14th, while other media channels were still relatively quiet on the story, there was a strong increase in signatures on the petition (116,391). The surge continued on March 15th. Using’s petition traffic data, we were able to link this surge of interest back to supportive tweets from a number of celebrities. Specifically, employee Timothy Newman elicited supportive tweets from celebrities such as Talib Kweli, Wyclef Jean, Spike Lee, Mia Farrow, and Chad Ochocinco, creating a 900 percent spike in social media traffic to the petition between March 12th and 15th.

Figure 3: Celebrity-driven surge in signatures (dark blue) while the story begins to gain traction in other media

Act III: National Exposure (March 16–22)

Figure 4: Network of Interlinked Media during Act III

In Act III, the mainstream media strengthened their positions as the predominant authorities. The energy building around the story accelerated sharply on March 16th, when Crump was successful in his quest to secure the public release of the audio of the 911 call Zimmerman placed while he pursued Martin with a gun. The audio of the call established that the 911 operator asked Zimmerman not to pursue Martin.

This explosive evidence increased the story’s reach across the Web. We see upticks in Media Cloud stories and Google Searches for both Martin and Zimmerman. While television had helped spread the Trayvon story in Act II, Broadcast Television took up the story in earnest after the release of the 911 tapes. The audio may have been especially important for broadcast media, as it gave radio and television an “actuality” to build a story around.

Figure 5: 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 March 18th

This strong televised coverage preceded a second wave of sharp growth in petition signatures and mentions in online news article and blog posts. The petition surpassed a million signatures, and civil rights leaders and activists began holding rallies and marches in Sanford, New York City, London, and elsewhere starting March 21st. The most notable of these marches was the Million Hoodie March in New York City, initiated by digital strategist Daniel Maree.

Act IV: Political Agenda Wars (March 23–April 10)

Figure 7: Network of Interlinked Media during Act IV

Nearly a month after Martin was shot, a reporter asked President Obama about the case during an unrelated press conference in the White House Rose Garden. The President alluded to the potential of racial profiling by saying that if he had a son, he would “look a lot like Trayvon.”

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. On March 25th, Howard University students released their video campaign entitled “Am I Suspicious?” which garnered hundreds of thousands of online views and additional media attention. On March 26th, the petition signatures were delivered to the Florida Attorney General, Sanford Police Chief, US Attorney General, and Florida's 4th District State's Attorney.

The actions taken online and offline, incendiary comments by pundit Geraldo Rivera, and the President’s statement broadened the story beyond the focus on the events of February 26th. The Pew Research Center reported that the Trayvon Martin story “received the highest level of sustained coverage of any other story with a racial component” they had seen in the past five years of weekly media tracking. Given the broad media attention paid to the case, what started as a battle for justice around a singular event became a political battle, with both sides harnessing the attention trained on the story for political gain.

We used subgraphs of the linked Media Cloud network to understand different media framings of the story. This allowed us to identify which actors were important in introducing the frames. In this act, we see evidence that actors on the political right worked to establish a narrative that undercut our understanding of Martin as an innocent victim.

On March 25th, Dan Linehan, lead author of the Wagist blog, asserted that Trayvon was a drug dealer. This reframing of Trayvon as dangerous, not innocent, was then amplified by a number of right wing blogs. Although there was no solid evidence to support the Wagist’s claim that Martin was a drug dealer, the narrative was effective in that it ended up being echoed by those in the mainstream media, if only to report that there was no credible evidence that the claim is accurate. This strategy of introducing a new story framing worked, at least as determined by volume of mainstream media mentions of the argument that Trayvon wasn’t an innocent teen.

Figure 9: Network of Interlinked Media mentioning ‘Drug Dealer’ during Act IV

The influence of Wagist is visible in ‘drug dealer’ sub-graphs in Figure 9. We even see Left-leaning blogs and organizations like Think Progress repeating the framing, if only to chime in and debunk the assertions. Activist on the Right were able to gain mainstream coverage for their framing, causing opponents to respond, perpetuating a debate that features the desired framing.

We also identified concerted efforts to use the attention the story had attracted to connect the public to broader national issues behind the events. The Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive group concerned about the influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) proved very effective in propagating their own original reporting, published on their website and through their campaign microsite ALEC Exposed. The organization had begun an anti-ALEC campaign seven months before Trayvon Martin was shot, and successfully made the connection between the shoot-first Stand Your Ground law used to justify Zimmerman's actions and ALEC’s behind-the-scenes influence in passing these laws in 24 states.

Figure 11: Network of Interlinked Media mentioning ‘American Legislative Exchange Council’ or ‘ALEC’ during Act IV

Huffington Post contributors wrote pieces connecting ALEC, Trayvon, and Stand Your Ground. These pieces made arguments that were soon echoed elsewhere in the liberal blogosphere. From March 21st on, ALEC can be seen as a sustained frame in our Media Cloud data.

The Left successfully pressured several of the target ALEC sponsor companies to end their relationship with the lobbying council. The public attention to the Trayvon Martin story drove the pressure that eventually resulted in the campaign’s victory. On 17 April, ALEC announced plans to shut down the Task Force behind the controversial Stand Your Ground laws.

Act V: Tabloid Court Case (April 11–30)

Figure 12: Network of Interlinked Media during Act V

Six weeks after Martin was shot, Zimmerman was taken into police custody. Google searches for ‘George Zimmerman’ peaked, alongside a final, smaller spike in searches for ‘Trayvon Martin.’ Front page newspaper coverage peaked the day after the arrest, again suggesting a need for actualities as “news hooks” for newspaper stories.

Figure 13: Tabloid court case patterns of media attention during Act V: Broadcast Television News (green) stays focused on the story as other channels significantly decrease—April 19th sees peak of 117 mentions in TV news, well after other media have peaked; Shift in Google Trends volume toward “George Zimmerman” (orange) vs. “Trayvon Martin” (turquoise) mirrors the shift in the story to focus on Zimmerman’s legal battle

In this final act of the narrative, news outlets played up a human drama angle, giving a tabloid tone to the stories. TV coverage was consistently middle-to-high and spiking regularly up to and around its peak, while the attention spikes in Google searches, newspaper front pages, and Media Cloud mentions dissipated shortly after Zimmerman’s arrest.


We looked closely at clicks on the link-shortening service bitly and found that non-race-specific mainstream media still dominates the lists of most clicked on stories, just like they do in the network maps. However, we also see across our data and different methods that blogs and niche media, including race-specific media, can direct attention to their own accounts of the story with profound effects on the overall media ecosystem.

Table 5: Top 25 Most Clicked Media Sources across All Acts according to bitly

Media Source Stories Total Clicks Twitter Clicks Facebook Clicks Other Clicks
Think Progress 80 156716 91264 24244 41208 166 144100 7154 55027 81919
MSNBC 141 61856 20138 28948 12770
Washington Post 66 56532 25190 13836 17506
The Huffington Post 154 53517 9152 31926 12439 4 46705 5511 34855 6339
The Orlando Sentinel 68 45189 26419 6770 12000
CBS News 153 34778 14964 8722 11092
The Miami Herald 38 30869 12053 10451 8365 6 28648 3490 20846 4312 20 26354 13399 3163 9792
FOX News 55 24708 11124 4248 9336 20 21339 10879 4868 5592
BBC 83 20383 14449 747 5187
The New Yorker 6 19580 6559 9673 3348 15 19459 12349 972 6138
The Daily News New York 98 15776 7529 4185 4062
Reuters: Top News 58 15690 10916 281 4493
BuzzFeed - Latest 41 14629 3550 7899 3180 2 14448 4542 670 9236 10 13714 9777 784 3153 1 13680 698 11396 1586
USA Today 61 12976 1429 7602 3945
The Onion 10 12949 8273 1638 3038
Slate Magazine 16 12680 120 11375 1185

Table 6: Top 10 Most Clicked Media Sources during Act II according to bitly

Media Source Stories Total Clicks Twitter Clicks Facebook Clicks Other Clicks 1 13232 532 11228 1472
The Huffington Post 8 5421 598 3642 1181
CBS News 5 2081 88 1362 631 1 52 21 19 12 1 38 17 0 21 1 24 18 0 6
The Atlantic Monthly 1 18 13 2 3
CNN 1 12 10 0 2
The Miami Herald 1 6 4 0 2 1 6 6 0 0

Table 7: Top 10 Most Clicked Media Sources during Act III according to bitly

Media Source Stories Total Clicks Twitter Clicks Facebook Clicks Other Clicks
Think Progress 14 63486 30753 16277 16456 14 28981 884 23171 4926
The Huffington Post 19 27514 4747 17269 5498 3 21421 2055 16731 2635
MSNBC 19 14634 8813 2691 3130
The Miami Herald 13 14253 8666 832 4755 3 11536 6837 2014 2685 1 11494 95 10465 934
CBS News 25 9911 1923 3768 4220
 The New Yorker 2 8620 2150 5258 1212

The bitly data suggests that the link economy and ensuing network of media sources is only a partial proxy for actual authority and influence in the attention economy of news media. Clicks are a better proxy for readership than simply the existence of links to stories.

As noted in Act II and III of the Chronological analysis, alongside, Race-specific Media were key to the early mobilization that built up the pressure and helped make the story a national one. However, their lack of incoming links may mean that they were “gated” by mainstream media sources when it comes to the link economy. Yet outside of that context, they enjoyed huge success on platforms like Facebook, where related events like the Million Hoodie March in NYC were organized.


Our key finding is 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. Benjamin Crump’s strategy to focus PR efforts on broadcast media brought national attention to the story, which allowed groups like the Black Youth Project to amplify stories to their online communities, and informed actors like Cunningham who launched campaigns like the petition. Without the initial coverage on newswires and television, it is unclear that online communities would have known about the Trayvon Martin case and been able to mobilize around it.

In the work of conservative and liberal commentators during “Act IV” in our analysis, we find that television and newspapers are sensitive to new developments in stories they have already begun to cover. This openness to new developments may make some news outlets unwitting amplifiers of outside political agendas, while other news outlets may intentionally amplify partisan messages when convenient, both products of networked framing.

Some debates about the relationship between professional and nonprofessional media suggest a parasitic relationship between professional and social media, where professionals report stories and social media argues about them, creating little additional value. Our research suggests the narrative is far more complicated. In unearthing content from social networks about Trayvon's past, conservative bloggers attempted to contribute original reporting to the dialog, while Think Progress and others took on a verification role, challenging the facts unearthed and their interpretation.

In some cases, members of the public using social media present interpretations of events which themselves become newsworthy, as in the case of newspapers amplifying the framing of Martin as blameworthy. In other cases, social media becomes a tool to organize responses to events reported in professional media. Responses like the Million Hoodie March and the “Am I Suspicious?” video became news stories in and of themselves, leading to additional coverage and extending the lifespan of the story.

Finally, this study demonstrates the complexity of contemporary media ecosystems and the need for tools, techniques, and data sources that allow us to empirically study the spread of ideas between media, examining influences of participatory media on professional media and vice versa. Work like Memetracker’s ability to analyze quote propagation and manipulation across news media, Stuart Soroka’s use of automated coding and sentiment analysis to study newsroom bias and gatekeeping, and emerging uses of Media Cloud for controversy mapping should be continued and augmented with “real world” data and broader sources of media online and offline.

Read the complete case study at