The Feb. 26 shooting of 17-year-old Florida teen Trayvon Martin has captured national attention. He was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman.
The controversy comes from the motives behind the killing, in which Zimmerman maintains that he acted in self-defense. According to ABC News and other media outlets, Martin was unarmed, only having a pack of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea on him.
Since the shooting, media attention has exploded. Social media users are calling for justice. Stars such as P. Diddy have tweeted about the issue, and even President Barack Obama commented that if he had had a son, he would look like Martin.
“Social media allows for voices to be heard at a constant rate until the media listen,” Dr. Leigh Browning, associate professor of Mass Communication, said. “If it were not for social media, this case would have regional play, at best.”
People on all sides are weighing in on the case. Fox News Host Geraldo Rivera generated controversy when he suggested that Martin’s black hoodie caused him to be shot. Others are suggesting that Zimmerman’s action was racially motivated.
“Under Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law, it states you can stand your ground when being threatened by imminent danger or lethal force or severe bodily injury,” Stephen Starkey, a loss prevention and internal investigation officer with Neiman Marcus, said. “That can vary from person to person but judging by the pictures I’ve seen of Martin, his fist is not a lethal force compared to Zimmerman’s size.”
Starkey declined to comment whether he thought the crime was racially motivated. However, he said that as a Concealed Handgun License owner, he believes that Zimmerman was an irresponsible gun owner.
“Guns are not toys,” he said. “They do not make us police and a CHL permit is not a license to kill, nor is it a protection under the law for when you discharge your firearm.”
As the investigation continues and new facts emerge, some people are criticizing the role of social media in the Martin case.
“In the American justice system, we are innocent until proven guilty,” JD Newman, a senior Communication Studies major, said in a Facebook post. “Let the detectives and a jury of peers determine if Trayvon Martin [was] murdered without cause, not social media.”
However, Dr. Browning said courts have ways to circumvent the influence of social media on investigations.
“Our legal system has six remedies in place for jury trials that are legal ways to fight the influence of media,” she said. “Some are change of venue, sequestration of the jury, admonition to the jury [and] voir dire.”
As the case continues to unfold, social media will also reflect the public’s opinion.
“Social media is a culmination of the ‘first blush’ response that we all have to events,” Dr. Browning said. “We all develop opinions pretty quickly. Social media drives that, but also asks us to question it when more evidence comes out.”