Social Media Put Florida Case In National Spotlight Scores of people signed online petitions to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking the Justice Department to investigate the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer. The case shows the power of social networking to quickly mobilize advocates in sometimes volatile situations.

Social Media Put Fla. Case In National Spotlight

Social Media Put Fla. Case In National Spotlight

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Civil rights leaders and residents of Sanford, Fla., attend a meeting Tuesday to discuss the death of Trayvon Martin, who was shot by a neighborhood watch captain. The Justice Department and the FBI opened an investigation into the shooting, and the local state attorney announced that he had asked a grand jury to investigate. Gerardo Mora/Getty Images hide caption

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Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

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 Trayvon 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 it 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 "Trayvon" claimed an overzealous 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 more than 88,000 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 Trayvons 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 Trayvon 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 Gelman, 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.

Correction March 21, 2012

The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, incorrectly says that Color of Change received 400,000 signatures. The group received more than 88,000.