Framing the Trayvon Martin Case: A Tale of Two Narratives
There are two distinctly different tales being told to us regarding the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. One narrative is that of an innocent youth who was mild-mannered and caring, who baked cookies for his young cousins. Innocent Trayvon was especially young for 17 years old, looking at the camera in his red Hollister t-shirt (In that picture Martin is apparently 13 or 14 years old.) He was returning home from a trip to 7-Eleven where he bought Skittles and iced tea.
In this narrative, along comes George Zimmerman, a white wannabe cop, who was often suspicious of black males as evidenced by his repeated calls to the police to report them. Zimmerman is so wary of blacks that he refuses to let Innocent Trayvon out of his sight, although he calls in his suspicions to the police. Zimmerman is so racist that even when told by the police not to follow Martin, he does so anyway, even though the dispatcher says that police are on the way. The lone photograph we initially saw of Zimmerman reflects this portrayal: He is unsmiling and unfriendly in a mugshot taken in 2005. (Apparently, this cartoon was meant to capture this narrative, but many found it offensive.)
The second narrative stands diametrically opposed to the first.
According to this version of reality, Martin was a young thug and Zimmerman (who is half Latino) was not a racist. (It is worth noting one implication of this narrative—that Martin’s being a thug softens the blow of his death.) Thug Martin, who did not live in Sanford, was there because of a suspension from his school in South Florida because he possessed marijuana. Further, Thug Martin had been found with women’s jewelry and a watch – suggesting that Thug Martin earned that name, at least in part, because he was a thief. And Thug Martin tried to kill Good Neighbor Zimmerman. Martin pounced on a retreating Zimmerman, battering him so much that Zimmerman received a bloody nose and bruises on the back of on his head. Fearing for his life, Zimmerman shot Thug Martin. As Florida’s “stand your ground” law allows, Zimmerman told this to police when they arrived and he was neither charged nor arrested.
Additional evidence that Martin was a thug was purportedly offered in the most startling manner when a website posted two competing pictures: One of Martin in the red Hollister t-shirt which the authors say was taken when Martin was 12 years old. However, 17-year-old Thug Martin was shown posing on his Facebook page shirtless, sagging pants, and giving his viewers “two birds”. (Turns out that Two Bird Martin was a different Trayvon Martin, not the one shot by Zimmerman.) Authors of this pictorial of Thug Martin claim that the youthful picture of Martin is being used by “race baiters”.
Additional support for the Good Neighbor Zimmerman version of events comes from a variety of sources. First, Zimmerman, we learn, was not a racist because he himself is a minority (the question of whether a minority can be racist is a topic worthy of another post) and has black relatives. Second, Zimmerman was not a racist because he mentored African American youth. Third, Zimmerman is not a racist because he has an African American friend. Fourth, witnesses heard someone calling for help during the confrontation; that was Good Neighbor Zimmerman being trounced by Thug Martin. The picture we see of Good Neighbor Zimmerman shows a smiling man in jacket and tie.
In the Innocent Trayvon version, it makes no sense for Martin to strike Zimmerman. He was too mild-mannered for that. In fact, according to a caller of a radio show claiming to be his relative, Innocent Trayvon was so quiet, he was called “Mouse”.
Are people more complex than either these stories suggest? Are these not caricatures? Why the need to paint these two completely opposing tales? Is it possible that Zimmerman was engaging in racial profiling, but is not a racist? Is it possible that Zimmerman was poised to expect trouble based on racial profiling? Is it possible that Innocent Trayvon, noticed that he was being followed by an older, bigger, white (maybe) stranger in a vehicle and became scared? Is it possible that given the chance, to “get” the stranger before the stranger got him, Martin at least attempted to defend himself?
Perhaps the case has more to do with class than race. Zimmerman’s father was a judge who may have helped his son get special treatment, a point debated on this video. Maybe we will get answers to these and many more questions. Regardless, it is important to think about how we know what we know.
How are decisions made about what stories news organizations put their resources behind; in other words, what motivates media agenda? And how do news organizations decide which of these two narratives or frames should be used in covering this case? How do they decide whether to introduce a third narrative? (Read this post to get some answers to these questions and ideas for getting news outside of the main narratives.) What additional stories might exist that are being ignored because they fit neither frame?