Slain teen's story is shaped by dueling scenarios in media

2012-10-07T00:00:00Z Slain teen's story is shaped by dueling scenarios in mediaBy Hal Boedeker and Martin E. Comas • Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. • Robert Zimmerman Sr. arrived at the Orlando Sentinel lobby alone March 15.

He was so nervous that he was trembling. Sad and resigned, he discussed death threats his family had received.

But Zimmerman — the father of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26 — also was determined as he demanded that the Sentinel print a typed, one-page letter with the message: "The media portrayal of George as a racist could not be further from the truth."

The newspaper published the letter online later that day, as well as in the next day's edition.

His media critique came a week after Martin's father, Tracy, first spoke out about his son's fatal shooting. Tracy Martin demanded that Sanford, Fla., police arrest George Zimmerman — a demand that echoed across the country.

Since the shooting, the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman story line has been shaped, in large part, by those dueling scenarios as both sides have used the media to present their version of the truth.

Race has been a driving force. The Martin team has highlighted profiling and unequal justice, while the Zimmerman camp has countered that race was a red herring that clouded the central issue: Zimmerman acted in self-defense.

Martin was black. Neighborhood watch volunteer Zimmerman was initially described as white.

But other issues also propelled the story atop the national news. The public debated the merits of Florida's 'stand your ground" law; the rules of neighborhood watch and how far its volunteers can go in protecting their neighborhoods; and even the advisability of wearing hoodies.

"It was a cultural story about race, about state laws. There were a lot of components that elevated it above just another crime story," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"That's what journalism has always been about: stories that can provoke a deeper conversation about issues. You don't have to live in Florida to know the details of the case."

In the court of public opinion, the Zimmerman side initially suffered one misstep after another while trying to get its message out. The Martin side, meanwhile, shared its version of the story early, clearly and frequently.

"Their goal was simply to keep this case in the public forefront and not let it get swept under the rug, and they did that excellently," said Orlando lawyer Mark NeJame, a legal analyst for CNN. "Martin's team adopted a philosophy of simply repeating their position as if it were a mantra."

That mantra: Martin, just 17, was an innocent child walking home in his hoodie when he was shot in cold blood while unarmed and carrying only Skittles and iced tea. Zimmerman should be arrested.

The mantra for Mark O'Mara, Zimmerman's attorney: "Wait until you know the facts of the case."

"This case has gotten skewed way off the base of what I think it should be on, because people are not listening to and seeing facts," O'Mara said in a recent interview with the Orlando Sentinel.

"A lot of people ran with the idea that this was a racially motivated case when there was no support to it."

'Complex narrative'

That was hard to see in the beginning, when protesters joined the Martin family's demand that Zimmerman be charged with killing Martin. After weeks of national outcry, an arrest happened April 11 when a special prosecutor charged him with second-degree murder.

"The narrative plays toward the mob in a case like this," said Al Tompkins, an instructor at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg. "The story is easy to understand. The youth is innocent, and the youth is the victim. What happens is a complex narrative that's much more difficult to get your arms around and sort out how you should feel.

"It's not as simple as 'man shoots teen.' There appears to have been some struggle. Once you know the narrative, the facts change. The man (Zimmerman) did have injuries. The youth actually fought back somehow. It's difficult for the public to stop in its tracks and alter its thinking in any way."

The shooting has been one of the biggest stories this year, and one that reflects how today's fragmented news culture works across blogs, websites and talk shows. Many in the media seized on emotion, not facts.

The key ingredient helping the story gain traction was Zimmerman's call to a dispatcher who told him to back off before Martin was killed, Rosenstiel said.

"It was after that tape was released that the story became much larger," Rosenstiel said. "That was one of the propulsive elements along with social media."

But both sides also used traditional media. Benjamin Crump and Natalie Jackson, attorneys for the Martin family, became frequent TV guests on morning programs, cable news and local newscasts.

At a March 16 news conference, Crump said, "Thank God for the media, because I'm not sure we ever would have gotten the truth out." Crump even flew to London with Martin's parents for a hoodie march.

"Most lawyers prefer to try their cases in the courtroom," Crump said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. "But in my experience, in civil rights cases, if you don't present your case in the court of public opinion and get media coverage, there's no guarantee — no matter how egregious the facts are — you'll be able to present your case in a court of law."

In his 17 years of practicing law, Crump has become well known for taking on cases of poor minorities — and presenting them to the media before they reach the courtroom.

Crump took the case after several requests from those in the Martin camp, including Tracy Martin. He sees a societal benefit in his TV appearances with Martin's parents.

"It kept mushrooming to the point that people started talking about it with their children," Crump said. "It became a debated issue at dinner tables around America. It was a phenomenon in every sense of the word."

'Eons ahead of us'

Meanwhile, Zimmerman's side of the story remained largely untold: George's brother talked with CNN's Piers Morgan on March 29. Zimmerman talked with Sean Hannity on July 18 on Fox News Channel.

"Are we playing catch-up? They're eons ahead of us," O'Mara said. "They're running around the country just saying whatever they want."

O'Mara questions Crump's approach.

"If he believes he wants to take on as a crusade the plight of the way young black males are treated in the criminal justice system — 'call me, and I will help you,' " O'Mara said.

"What they're saying is, 'Let's have a conversation.' Go right ahead, but don't make it a media frenzy about a case that doesn't involve that."

To O'Mara, the central legal issue will rest on his client's insistence that he was defending himself when Martin was shot.

"The reality is, this case is supposed to be judged upon George's belief, whether it was reasonable, that he was in fear of great bodily injury at Martin's hands," O'Mara said. "To that, we look at some of the evidence. That's what we need to focus on. To turn George into something he's not for an ulterior motive is frustrating."

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