Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot fatally by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on February 26 as he walked, carrying Skittles and ice tea, toward his father’s girlfriend’s home in a gated community in Sanford, FL, a suburb of Orlando. This much we know (also, Skittles sales are up).
In the weeks since, the incident gained media prominence to the point of overtaking 2012 election coverage. Some of that reporting has been of the “he said-she said” variety, and some has been disputed (the Associated Press ran a piece last week pointing out ambiguities in the case). And pundits on all sides of the political spectrum have weighed in on everything from guns to US race relations.
But there has also been some solid shoe-leather reporting, on Florida pavement and elsewhere. The following is a guide to some of the better reports we’ve found:
Updating the facts
Of all the attempts at gathering information about the killing in one place, Mother Jones has done it particularly well, with an epically long, oft-updated explainer page. It’s a compendium of primary sources and reporting and (in a somewhat mixed blessing) also some opinion, organized in a question-and-answer format. It’s a great resource for tracking updates in both information and public reaction as they unfold. The Orlando Sentinel and the online site westorlandonews.com have also been devoting extensive resources to following the story.
The man behind the Mother Jones effort is Adam Weinstein, 33, Mother Jones’s national security reporter, who is based in Tallahassee and who, interestingly, has had a concealed weapon permit since he turned 21. Weinstein, with assists from DC-based colleagues, has been collecting primary sources and reporting and keeping abreast of other outlets’ coverage.
One useful innovation is a second page devoted solely to archiving primary sources—with the exception of the audio of 911 calls related to the case, which remain toward the top of the first page because of heavy demand.
But “within the first day or three of putting up an explainer,” Weinstein said, “you’re starting a conversation with commenters, readers, tweeters.” How it evolves “really depends on our readership, the attention people are paying to it, and what they want to know about the story.”
The reader-spurred updating leads to useful updates—at this point, 34 of them—but a page that, with the combined content and comments, becomes unwieldy. MoJo might consider making the updates available by topic as well as chronological order, since the additions aren’t always time-sensitive but, rather, reported responses to reader curiosity.
Weinstein said he’ll continue updating the explainer in the coming weeks, but that Mother Jones’s coverage of the Trayvon case will soon shift focus beyond the explainer monolith to long-form stories. “What we found is there’s a tipping point where it gets to be so large that what we do is we use the explainer as a forum,” Weinstein said. “Stories begin to need their own space.”
A widespread perception exists at this point that, whatever happened between Martin and Zimmerman, the investigation of the Sanford Police Department was amateurish at best. The vote of no-confidence in Police Chief Bill Lee by the City Council certainly fostered that impression, as did the subsequent temporary removal of Lee from his post, and the recusal of state attorney Norman Wolfinger.
So we were surprised when, in a review of the coverage, we had a hard time turning up a comprehensive journalistic account of what the police actions actually were—and how they measured up to optimal (or even standard) police practices in the investigation of a suspicious death. Mother Jones’s Weinstein said last Friday that he, too, had not “yet found [a] big unified piece focusing on the Sanford police’s conduct.” (Update: but see here.)
The clearest crack at that story we did find is a good March 21 article by Frances Robles of The Miami Herald. Robles catalogues the leading criticisms of the department, tracks down police practices experts to weigh in, and gets on-the-record responses—some more persuasive than others—from the Sanford PD.
(Several of Robles’s items mention witness complaints about the investigation. A March 13 article by ABC News’s Matt Gutman offers a more incendiary formulation, saying that an officer “corrected” one eyewitness’s account to make it more sympathetic to Zimmerman.)