Almost immediately after the February 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin, the conversation about the case began simmering on Twitter. But it was nearly three weeks later, on March 17-after the release of 911 tapes-before the story exploded on Twitter, on blogs and in the mainstream media to become the first story of the year to get more coverage than the race for the president.
As attention to the story surged, the focus within these three parts of our media culture varied greatly, according to a special report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. On Twitter, the conversation has focused on sympathy for the slain teenager and expressions of outrage at the killing. On blogs, the emphasis has been on the role of race in the highly charged case. In the mainstream media, the Trayvon Martin controversy was heavily a cable news and talk radio story. And there, the primary discussion has focused on two politically oriented issues-gun control laws and the Florida Stand Your Ground statute, which gives citizens the right to use deadly force when they believe they are being threatened.
Moreover, the Martin story has been a much bigger story on MSNBC, whose talk show hosts are liberal, and a much smaller story on Fox, whose prime time lineup leans conservative. The focus of the discussion differs as well. Conservative talkers paid the most attention to questions about who Martin is and to the defense of the man who pulled the trigger, George Zimmerman. Liberal hosts focused primarily on gun control and the Florida law.
A Story that Took Two Weeks to Emerge
Travyon Martin, the 17-year-old African American walking home from a convenience store, was shot by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman on February 26. In the days immediately after, the shooting got more attention in social media than in the national mainstream press, though even on Twitter and in blogs the attention was still fairly modest.
That changed on March 17 after the release of 911 audio tapes of Zimmerman calling police who advised him not to follow Martin. The volume on Twitter doubled overnight and continued to rise for the next several days. The same thing happened in the blogosphere, where the discussion had been minimal at the outset.
The same triggering event also jump started coverage in the national press. According to PEJ’s News Coverage Index, the Trayvon Martin story became the No.1 story after the 17th, filling 19% of the newshole studied from March 19-27 -exceeding coverage of the presidential campaign (14%). This was the first story of the year to get more attention than the campaign in any given week.
Most of that attention came from cable news and talk radio.
Differing Focus By Media
Yet while all three sectors of media were suddenly trained on the event, their focus was just as striking for how it differed.
On Twitter, the conversation focused heavily on calls for justice (21% of the statements about the case) and sympathy for the victim and his family (19%). Together those two themes made up 40% of all the discussion about the case, which included millions of tweets on the subject over the 11 days since it became a major story.
On blogs, the No. 1 theme of the conversation (accounting for 15% of it) was the role of race. That was followed calls for justice (13%).
And on cable news and talk radio, the most discussed topic was legalistic, the subject of gun control and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. That accounted for 17% of the airtime devoted to the case. That was followed by questions about Trayvon Martin and defense of George Zimmerman.
MSNBC, with a liberal prime time lineup, devoted the largest portion of its newshole to the story. Fully 49% of MSNBC programming studied was dedicated to the case. On CNN, the case made up 40% of the hours studied during the period. Fox News covered the story much less than the other two outlets. It devoted 15% of its airtime studied to the case. Not only did the three cable news channels cover the story to different degrees. They homed in on different aspects of the case.
MSNBC devoted the most attention the gun control issue and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. The second-most popular topic on MSNBC was the city of Sanford, including discussion of its police force and the city’s rocky racial history.
The leading theme of CNN’s coverage of the case involved questions about Trayvon Martin and the defense of Zimmerman followed closely by straight news accounts.
On Fox, questions about Trayvon Martin’s past and statements in defense of George Zimmerman also garnered the most attention by far. That was followed by attention to the media’s handling of the story.
Some of these differences in approach can be seen in how the three channels handled a mid-afternoon March 26 press conference called by Trayvon Martin’s family. MSNBC showed the press conference live for over 14 minutes, with no commercial interruptions or comments or summary by the new hosts. CNN also provided live coverage of the press conference, but for less time than MSNBC, a little over five minutes. Fox did not show any footage from the press conference when it was occurring and did not discuss the case in that hour.
When coverage is broken down by the ideology of the talk show host-both in talk radio and cable-there are also differences. The No. 1 storyline among liberal talkers was gun control and the Florida law followed by a discussion of the remark by Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera blaming the hoodie for Trayvon Martin’s death.
Among conservative talkers, the top subject included questions about Trayvon and a defense of Zimmerman, followed by a discussion of the media’s handling of the story.
The news agendas in social media, meanwhile, varied significantly from that of the mainstream press. The most prominent topic on cable and talk radio-gun control and the Florida Stand Your Ground law-was considerably farther down the list on both Twitter and blogs. Conversely, sympathy for Trayvon-a major topic in social media-was not nearly as popular in the cable and talk radio universe.
But there were also significant differences in focus between the blogosphere and Twitter universe. On Twitter, where the 140 character limit impacts the depth of the discussion, the combined topics of sympathy for Trayvon Martin and calls for justice accounted for 40% of the statements. On blogs these themes were significant, but not nearly as prominent, accounting for one quarter (25%) of the conversation.
There gun control/the Florida law and the role of race were bigger issues, accounting for 26% of the conversation studied versus 15% on Twitter.
On other topics connected to the case, there was less divergence between the two social media forms. That was certainly the case regarding expressions of skepticism about the victim and a defense of the shooter, which accounted for 7% on blogs and 6% on Twitter. (On cable and talk radio, that theme was twice as prominent, at 14%).
In other words, in social media support for Trayvon and outrage at the killing far outweighed any sense that Zimmerman might have been justified in his actions. On cable and talk radio, suspicion of Trayvon Martin was virtually equal to doubts about George Zimmerman.
Despite new developments in the story itself, the leading frames in social media did not change much over time. On blogs, there was negligible change in the focus of the conversation. On Twitter, there was some diminution in attention to both supportive tweets about Trayvon Martin and his family and outrage at the killing as the story played on. The former dropped from 19% on March 17 to 12% on March 28 while the latter fell from 25% to 20% in that time period.
On cable news and talk radio however, the themes of the coverage shifted more according to ideology (as discussed above) than to timeframe. Still, one theme spiked dramatically as time went on: the media’s handling of the story. It was not much of a theme at all in the beginning, accounting for 1% of the coverage studied. Later, that number jumped to 13%.
 Twitter volume doubled to an average of 338,000 per day. For comparison, in the 3 days after the Kony 2012 story hit Twitter (March 7-9), there were an average of 1,380,900 statements per day. And, the day following Obama’s Jan 24 SOTU speech (Jan 25), there were 1,362,200 statements. In the day following the death of Osama bin Laden (May 1), there were approximately 4 million statements.
 None of the cable programs that are included in PEJ’s regular coding are broadcast on weekends. However, there was some coverage of the topic on other cable and network television broadcasts the weekend of March 17th and 18th, evidence that the story had penetrated the national media by then.