M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

Surprise! People are sophisticated

with 3 comments

Updated at 1:15 p.m. ET: Over at msnbc.com, I have a piece looking at how people have followed the Trayvon Martin case online. This is one of the projects we’re doing with Crimson Hexagon’s Forsight social media tools, which are explained in this post.

Although you might get the impression from news coverage of the case that the American public wants George Zimmerman’s head on a stake, what the American public has been saying on Twitter and Facebook and in online forums is much more nuanced.

After crunching more than 2.6 million posts since the Feb. 26 shooting, our analysis found that nearly everyone sympathizes with Martin’s family; at the same time, many people have paid attention to the complications posed by Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, and once public attention settled down after Zimmerman’s arrest last week, a slight majority of those who expressed a clear opinion on Zimmerman’s culpability seem to believe that while he was wrong, he may not actually have broken any laws.

Zimmerman’s bond hearing Friday brought the case back to the front of public consciousness, and as it has several times since Feb. 26, opinion began shifting once again. A slight majority of Friday’s commentary through noon ET indicated a belief that Zimmerman is, in fact, guilty.

This would seem to indicate that people’s opinions aren’t set in stone. It wasn’t until March 29, when ABC News’ police surveillance video appeared to show that Zimmerman wasn’t injured, that a majority first began believing he was guilty of a crime:

After his arrest — when commentary receded to a smaller audience of people who’ve been closely following the case — it swung back the other way.

There’s a tendency, especially among journalists, to dismiss online comments as a cesspool of ungoverned vitriol. But our analysis suggests that when you really dive into it, the extreme expression is an outlier. In the main, people really do think about what they’re going to say and are willing to publicly change their minds; we just don’t pay attention to them.

This could be a result of selective perception — like anybody else, we notice the extreme and gloss over the dozens of surrounding comments that look, for lack of a better word, “normal.” I’d suggest that’s not the best journalistic practice.

3 Responses

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  1. THANK YOU. I have been trying to preach this to journalists for about three years. I started out as a political blogger and I found that by engaging with even the seemingly unhinged commenters, I could bring most to a civil level of discussion and get them to at least see where I was coming from. Even if they didn’t agree with me in the end, they came to respect my point of view and understand how I arrived at it. Obviously most journalists don’t have the time to engage with every commenter. But someone needs to. Or just don’t open comments on every story. The folks at the Guardian have a saying for this: don’t start a fire if you won’t be around to put it out.

    • GOD is watching over us on a daily basis & HE sees evneithyrg that onfolds All I can say is dat HIS word will forever maintain its sharpness as an arrow..HE has promised 2 recompense tribulation on those that trouble thee 1 Thes. 1:6 This shall be the reward of Zimmerman and whosoever that supports HIS action. U won’t believe that blacks get pull over by police just because he/she is riding a fancy/flashy car? This madness has to stop! & with unity in CHRIST JESUS, we shall definitely overcome d prevailing situations, & above all, we shall stand up stall. I’m soooooo hurt cuz I’m a young lad, & know how important boys are to their mothers. I’m jus imagining what that woman is going through.


      May 20, 2012 at 3:40 am

  2. All that we can do is practice as we believe it is right! We can not convince everyone to act as we do! But we can teach the new journalists how to practice their job and hope they will do so!


    May 3, 2012 at 3:21 am

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