Trayvon Martin story found the media

April 12, 2012

It began as a routine police-blotter item, a journalistic afterthought. On Feb. 26, the Orlando Sentinel’s online edition devoted a few dozen words to the fatal shooting of an unnamed teenager in the nearby town of Sanford. The story also made the late news that night on WOFL, the local Fox affiliate.

The Sentinel followed a day later with another brief item, this one noting the young victim’s name and age: Trayvon Martin, 17. The paper said it wasn’t identifying the shooter, a man in his 20s, “because he has not been charged.” The early police accounts of the episode made it seem nothing more than “a fight gone bad,” recalled John Cutter, the Sentinel’s associate editor.

And then . . . nothing.

The national media didn’t descend on Sanford. Celebrities didn’t tweet about the shooting. The cable pundits didn’t start their debate about guns, race and Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. For more than a week, the story teetered near obscurity, at risk of becoming just another tragic but forgotten encounter on a rainy night in central Florida.

It’s likely that Martin’s death, which resulted in the arrest and indictment Wednesday of confessed shooter George Zimmerman, would never have crowded into the national consciousness had it not been for Martin’s family, its lawyers and an enterprising PR man.

For the most part, the Martin story found the media, rather than vice versa. Outraged by the lack of an arrest, the Martin camp lobbied news outlets to examine what had happened that night in Sanford. Eventually, the media did, and the story moved like a fast-burning fuse, leaping from traditional news sources to the blogosphere and social media.

A pivotal, if little-known, figure in the Martin story’s development was Ryan Julison, an Orlando public relations executive who began working with the Martin family at the behest of its attorneys, Benjamin Crump and Natalie Jackson.

With the story fading, Julison began trying to revive interest in it, emphasizing a storyline of an unarmed teenager, a neighborhood watchman with a gun and the lack of an arrest. He got few takers.

“There just wasn’t a lot of interest in this out of the gate,” he said in an interview Thursday. “Oftentimes, it seems like the media likes to follow instead of going first. They want to wait and see someone else do the story and then they get in line. But we were at zero. We had to keep going from scratch.”

Julison, who has worked on other high-profile stories, such as acting as spokesman for John Travolta after the death of his son, Jett, finally found two takers: the Reuters wire service and CBS News.

Reuters moved a 14-paragraph story on the case March 7. The next morning, “CBS This Morning” aired a piece by reporter Mark Strassman in which Trayvon’s father, Tracy, expressed his grief over his son’s death and outrage that Zimmerman was still free — two elements that would stoke the coverage for weeks.

“It was one of those stories that, when you hear the pitch, you just say, ‘Wow, this has to be told,’ ” said Chris Licht, executive producer of the morning program. From the reaction afterward, he said, “We knew we’d hit on something significant.”

All at once, the two national media reports seemed to give the incident the attention and credibility Martin’s family had been seeking.

That morning, Julison organized a news conference in Jackson’s law office in Orlando, featuring Crump and Tracy Martin. The news conference generated more local coverage, an Associated Press story and a piece in the Huffington Post. Two days later, on March 10, ABC’s “Good Morning, America” weighed in.

The fuse, now burning brightly, soon threatened to touch off an explosion.

Members of the New Black Panther Party, a fringe group, showed up in Sanford that weekend to protest Zimmerman’s release from police custody. By Monday, the Rev. Al Sharpton was talking about the Martin case on his syndicated radio program and on his MSNBC show, setting off even more talk on cable.

On cable talk shows, “hosts on both sides of the political spectrum found something that fit their perspectives,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which had studied the media coverage.

The left seized on the police not charging Zimmerman and on the Martin family as symbols of civil rights, he said; the right emphasized alleged liberal media bias in reporting the story. According to PEJ’s data, MSNBC, which employs Sharpton, has discussed the Martin case more than CNN or Fox News.

A key twist in the story, said Julison, was the release on March 16 of tapes of Zimmerman’s 911 emergency calls. The tapes, which Sanford police had resisted releasing, gave news outlets fresh material to report, and added another emotional element to the story. One recording captured screams for help in the background. “It humanized the situation,” he said. “You hear people crying. You can’t help but be moved by it.”

By this time, the story had spread to social media, with such celebrities as Spike Lee, Russell Simmons and Mia Farrow tweeting their outrage, and LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates posing for photos in hoodies — the garment worn by Martin at the time of his death.

The Martin family, in New York for an appearance on “The Today Show,” also agreed to participate in a local rally dubbed “The Million Hoodie March,” which drew enormous media attention. President Obama finally seemed to certify the story’s national significance March 23 when he commented, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

Julison, who worked on the story for no compensation, says he always thought his clients’ case had merit, but the outcome wasn’t guaranteed. “All of these things worked perfectly,” he said. “They came out in just the right sequence for us.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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