When ESPN decided it would permit its employees to express support for Trayvon Martin on Twitter, the company argued that donning a hoodie was an expression of human sympathy rather than a political stance.
It turns out there was something to that.
The latest study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism suggests that while coverage of the Martin case has fractured along political lines in cable and talk radio, Twitter has served as a sounding board for sympathy and outrage.
Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old Florida youth, was gunned down by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, sparking a national controversy.
According to Pew, the Martin story is the first this year to shift the mainstream media’s focus off the election. Between March 19 and 27, the media has devoted 19 percent of its coverage to the shooting, surpassing the election at 14 percent.
On Twitter, the focus has been outrage at Zimmerman, calls for justice and expression of sympathy: 40 percent of the discussion of the case fell into those categories.
Two more overtly political issues – gun control and race relations – have played a smaller role, making up just 15 percent of discussion. And although the case is race-related, overt discussion of race is a different matter.
While Twitter may be an echo chamber for sympathy and outrage, that outrage has fueled media coverage that would, based on these numbers, appear to be politically motivated.
The more conservative cable news and talk-radio sector have spent about as much time defending Zimmerman as expressing outrage about what he did. According to Pew, 14 percent of coverage on the cable and talk shows has been devoted to raising doubts about Martin’s innocence or defending Zimmerman in some form.
When it comes to expressing sympathy for Martin or outrage at Zimmerman, the percentage is also 14. On Twitter, remember, that number was 40 percent.
Fox News has led the charge in seeking more information about Martin’s past, devoting more of its time to that and to media coverage of the case than anything else. Meanwhile, MSNBC has focused on gun control, Florida's Stand Your Ground law and race-focused issues.
The left-leaning MSNBC, by comparison, has devoted more time than its competitors to coverage of Martin. Almost 50 percent of its programming has been dedicated to the case, compared to 40 for CNN and 15 for Fox News.