Social Media Put Fla. Case In National Spotlight | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

Social Media Put Fla. Case In National Spotlight

Play associated audio

The shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Florida has sparked heated reactions across the country, but there was a lag before mainstream media picked up on the story. Not so online, where a more immediate outcry grew into a petition drive this week to encourage a federal investigation.

Now the Justice Department is looking into Treyvon Martin's death at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer, and black media and social media were key in demanding closer scrutiny.

The 17-year-old was shot on Feb. 26, but it was the release Friday of 911 tapes from the night of his death that made the case a top story in the mainstream media — and kept him there.

In calls to dispatchers, witnesses reported gunshots and screaming. By the end of the evening, Martin was dead, allegedly shot in the chest by George Zimmerman, who had told the dispatcher moments before that Martin looked "suspicious."

When authorities reached Martin's body, they found a can of iced tea and a small bag of candy.

Zimmerman claimed self-defense, citing Florida's stand-your-ground law. No charges were filed, and the outrage in black communities across the country was instant. Although the shooting would become national news a few weeks later, the anger immediately flowed through black talk radio, black newspapers and blogs.

There was also a song about the incident by rapper Jasiri X, whose "Treyvon" claimed an over-zealous Zimmerman jumped to deadly conclusions.

Syndicated columnist George Curry says the black media have a long history of highlighting anti-black violence, which mainstream media often picks up on later.

"The black press plays a unique role, because they know right away and can recognize these kinds of stories and the value of them," Curry says.

Mr. Friendly Vs. Mr. Unfriendly

Curry thinks part of the lag between when black and mainstream media began covering the Martin shooting can be accounted for by the communities' different interaction with law enforcement.

"I think that stems from the fact that whites have a different experience with the police than blacks and Latinos," he says. "To whites, he's Mr. Friendly. To blacks and Latinos, he's Mr. Unfriendly."

Rashad Robinson is executive director of Color of Change, an online civil rights organization. Color of Change got almost 400,000 signatures forwarded to Attorney General Eric Holder's office in just a few days. Robinson says this kind of mobilization is important beyond this one case.

"For all the Treyvons out there who we may not know yet, that we can start the work of changing our culture to ensure that justice is served, and that people won't just be quiet when injustices happen," Robinson says.

From One Community To A National Issue

Before the Justice Department got involved in the Martin investigation, the Obama White House had been fairly quiet on the subject other than expressing its condolences and concern.

Press secretary Jay Carney said Monday afternoon, "Our thoughts and prayers go out to Treyvon Martin's family, but obviously we're not going to wade into a local law enforcement matter."

A reporter then asked about an earlier, well-known racial confrontation that President Obama stepped in to mediate: the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home in 2009.

"You know, the case of Professor Gates up in Cambridge pales compared to this, and the president did speak out about that," the reporter said.

"I don't have any conversations to report to you," the press secretary replied. But that night, the Justice Department announced it would investigate the Martin shooting.

"It becomes harder and harder for politicians to not pay attention," says attorney Lauren Gellman, who specializes in social media issues for the firm Gellman says online campaigns by Color of Change and other organizations make a difference.

"It goes from being an issue for just one community to being a national issue," she says.

And that is exactly what social media users are counting on in Martin's case.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


Fox's 'Gracepoint': An American Remake Best Viewed With Fresh Eyes

Fox's new show Gracepoint is a remake of a British murder mystery, Broadchurch. NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans says those who saw the original might want to watch the new series with someone who hasn't.

California Cracks Down On Farmers Market Cheaters

Did your local farmer really grow that heirloom apple he just sold you? California wants to know, so it's sending more inspectors out to make sure the produce sold at markets is really local.

Top Spending PAC Aims To Keep The Senate In Democratic Hands

Senate Majority PAC, run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Reid, is the top-spending superPAC in the midterm election season. Its donors are essentially a compilation of the party's big-donor base.

Tech Firms Chip Away At Credit Cards' Share Of Transactions

Companies including PayPal and Apple are competing to convince merchants and consumers to use their swipe-and-go mobile payment systems. Credit card breaches may speed up the use of digital wallets.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.