Initial Coverage was Local
Travyon Martin was shot on February 26th. Zimmerman had confessed to the shooting and turned himself in, but was not charged or even arrested by the Sanford Police Department. The story was covered the next day like most crime stories, by a local television news channel. Fox 35 Orlando's news program reaches in the ballpark of 20,000 viewers. On February 29th, the Orlando Sentinel reached another potential 227,593 potential readers with the story. On March 2nd, the Miami Herald picked up the story and published it to an additional 164,332 people. For another six days, no coverage. It wasn't until a Reuters story published March 7th, and then CBS This Morning on March 8th, that the story began to take off, a full 10 days after Travyon Martin was murdered.
A Traditional Press Strategy
How Travyon's parents, their lawyers, and online activists were able to train the national media's spotlight back to a story that had, by all traditional measures, run its course, is a case study in navigating the modern media ecosystem.
It involves Change.org, an emerging powerhouse combination of social media and activism. But above all, the story's resurgence is due to a savvy media strategy by the Martin family's lawyer, Benjamin Crump, who set everything in motion well before the Change.org petition was created.
Crump is best known for winning a similar legal case in Florida in 2006, when another black teenager was murdered. In the case, Martin Lee Anderson was beaten to death at a bootcamp-style youth detention center. Crump won the family $7.2 million, but the adults responsible for the boy's death were acquitted by a jury despite video evidence, haunting Crump to this day. Marc Caputo at the Miami Herald has written a great profile on Crump, and the media lessons he has taken to heart:
In Trayvon’s case, they alerted the news media more quickly. They phoned the Rev. Al Sharpton almost instantly, and organized marches with local civil-rights activists. They also started pressing for federal involvement and alleging a cover-up from the get-go.
No stranger to attracting media attention, Rev. Al Sharpton took on the challenge with passion. Brian Stetler at The New York Times details how Sharpton brought the spotlight with him on his trip to Florida:
“The attorney called and said, ‘I need you again,’ ” Mr. Sharpton recalled in a telephone interview from Florida, where he staged a rally Thursday night to call for justice. He took his radio and TV shows with him, thereby amplifying his call.
Mr. Sharpton has used his shows for all manner of advocacy He analogized radio, with its hours of airtime and calls from listeners, to “ground forces” and MSNBC as “air strikes” and said, “If you have a war, you’re going to need both.”
Natalie Jackson, a local lawyer on the case, brought in publicist Ryan Julison on March 5th to get the story in front of the media. Jackson, Julison, and Crump all contributed their time on a pro bono basis. They saw the injustice of the case and knew "that publicity could force officials to act, but it would require persuading two people who had never stood before a television camera to withstand the spotlight" (Reuters). Trayvon's parents were their greatest asset in the media campaign:
"I got on the phone with Tracy Martin and I told him, ‘It's not going to be any fun, but this is the only way to find justice,'" Julison said. "You are going to have to bare your soul and express your emotions and your inner grief." Martin and Fulton agreed. There was only one problem. At first, the media weren't interested. Julison pitched the story to a long list of media contacts.
After weeks of little to no media coverage, the story roared back to life on March 7th with the piece from Reuters and then on March 8th, with articles in the Huffington Post, TheGrio.com (an African-American online news property of NBC), and the first national TV coverage on CBS This Morning, produced by CBS's Atlanta station. Crump and his team had done their job in reviving the story and taking it to the national stage.
Enter the Internet
On the exact same day that the national media attention revived the story, March 8th, Kevin Cunningham, a 31-year old lawyer in Washington, DC, started a Change.org petition. Cunningham had read the Reuters story on a Howard University listserv, and was frustrated with the lack of media attention to date. Cunningham's first update to the petition explicitly calls out the lack of coverage:
For some reason the mainstream media is not reporting this story. Shameful, call them, email them, don't let this go!
Ironically, the media coverage generated in the days prior by Crump and Martin's parents was just beginning to hit the airwaves, and would be sending traffic Cunningham's way in very short order. On March 8th, the same day Cunningham started the petition, the CBS piece aired and reached an estimated 2.56 million viewers. March 8th is also the first day where Google Trends shows any results for the query "Trayvon Martin".