April 26, 2012

The Media Stayed with the Trayvon Martin Story

% of newshole
March 19-25 19
March 26-April 1 18
April 2-8 7
April 9-15 17
April 16-22 7

14% – newshole devoted to the Trayvon Martin case in the last five weeks

While it took almost three weeks for the mainstream press to begin covering the February 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin, it has become a major story since then.

Indeed, in the five-weeks from March 19-April 22, coverage of the racially charged case filled 14% of the overall newshole. In that period, only one other story, the 2012 presidential campaign (at 18%), received more media attention.

And in the five years that PEJ has been tracking news coverage, the Trayvon Martin case has generated the most sustained attention of any story with a strong racial component.

The case first gained attention in the mainstream press the week of March 19-25—shortly after the release of 911 audio tapes of alleged shooter George Zimmerman calling police, who suggested that he not follow Martin. That week, it was the No. 1 story, filling 19% of the newshole.  It accounted for 18% the following week, March 26-April 1, and reached 17% from April 9-15 when Zimmer was charged with second degree murder.  In the weeks of April 2-8 and 16-22, coverage trailed off, but still registered at 7%.

No other race related-story, even those that generated initial bursts of intense coverage, has displayed the media staying power of the Trayvon Martin case.

When radio host Don Imus triggered a major controversy and lost his job after referring to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy headed hos,” the story filled 26% of the week of April 8-13, 2007. One week later, coverage plunged to just 1% of the newshole.

Race was a crucial factor in a major story during the 2008 presidential campaign when videos showed Barack Obama’s
pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, making anti-American and inflammatory comments during church sermons. The week of March 17-23, 2008, the story accounted for 17% of the newshole as Obama delivered a
major address on race in response to the release of the videos. The following week, the story faded to 3% the newshole. .

The story reignited the week of  April 28-May 4, 2008, (18%) when Wright made a series of high-profile media appearances forcing Obama to speak out more forcefully against his pastor and eventually resign from the church. But coverage quickly faded again, to just 1%, the following week.

Another story with major racial overtones surfaced in the summer of 2010 when Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign after a misleadingly edited video clip surfaced in which she appeared to be making racially controversial comments. The story accounted for 14% of the newshole the week of July 19-25, 2010. One week later, coverage fell to 2% and then quickly vanished.

The arrest of African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his Cambridge Massachusetts home by a police officer triggered significant attention in the summer of 2009. The saga filled 12% the week of July 20-26, 2009 following Obama’s comment that the police acted “stupidly” in the case. One week later, July 27-August 2, the story accounted for 8% as Obama held the much-publicized “beer summit” at the White House. After that, the story dropped off the media radar.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ