Since Parkland: Reporting Project Records Youth Deaths From Gun Violence
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: A little more than one year ago — on February 14th, 2018 — a gunman shot and killed 17 students and staffers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen others were also injured in the attack. In addition to increase political awareness and activism among some young people, the shootings also ignited a journalistic effort called Since Parkland. That project included more than 200 young reporters from around the country documenting the lives of children up to age 18 who had died in any sort of gun-related violence. And with me to talk about Since Parkland is Akoto Ofori-Atta. She is the project director and managing editor of The Trace and she's with us via Skype. Akoto, let's talk about the origins of this project. How and why did Since Parkland get started?
AKOTO OFORI-ATTA: The Trace is the only newsroom in the country that is solely focused on covering gun violence in America. And after the Parkland shooting, we had noticed that the conversation around gun violence was really focused on the youth, and as a newsroom that is dedicated to covering this issue so closely, we thought that we needed to really figure out how to meet the moment and provide some more journalistic insight that had kids at the center of it. We also, at The Trace, when we are covering this issue, lots of people are mostly concerned about gun violence when you see these big shootings in the news, right, like the Parkland, the Las Vegas shootings, the Orlando, and what have you. At The Trace, we're covering gun violence every single day and all of its manifestations. And so one of the things that the Parkland activists did, was really remind people that school shootings were a small, small portion of the problem when it came to gun violence in America and America's children. And we wanted to ask students to join us in our continued effort to tell those stories that don't often get told.
GOLDSTEIN: How much training, how much editing had to go into this or was this about young people going out and telling these stories for themselves in an almost an innocent way, but also a very raw way?
OFORI-ATTA: We worked with 200 student reporters to write nearly 1200 portraits of young people who've been killed by guns since the Parkland shooting. And in order to do this, we worked very closely with journalism educators to find, you know, both the most powerful and also the most efficient ways to assign student journalists this work. And what we came up with is a format that allows students to lead with the life. Lead with who this young person was, and what they did, how they were loved, and then save the details of their tragic deaths for the end. And that framing is something that students really took to very quickly. And they, you know, sort of just ran with it and became committed to correcting the narratives that are so prominent, that are so prevalent in our gun violence coverage, which is a quick nod to how a young person died without mentioning their name, their family, without giving you any sense of who this person was. Students had become really excited about sort of being a corrective to that. I mean editing and assigning was much like it is in any newsroom and any assignment.
GOLDSTEIN: Can a project like Since Parkland make a difference in terms of raising awareness and perhaps in some ways prevent gun violence or is that just too much to hope for?
OFORI-ATTA: You know, I think, one of the things that we do at The Trace, one of our primary objectives, one of the key parts of our mission is to really shed light on the corners of this issue that people don't know or understand. We see raising public awareness as a very important part of the kinds of things that journalism can accomplish. And, you know, we've heard from parents, we've heard from students, we've heard from our peers in journalism about all the things they did not know that this project brought to light. They didn't know how many kids were getting caught in the crosshairs of their parent or guardian's domestic violence dispute and losing their lives in the result of those incidences. They didn't know how many kids, particularly younger kids, were just picking up unsecured weapons and killing themselves or killing another kid. And of course, they didn't know the extent to which young black boys across the country are losing their lives in cities, in neighborhoods that are besieged by gun violence. We set out to make sure people knew that and to make sure that people knew that these victims were not — that school shootings was less than 1% of the way that these young people died and that there are many, many other ways in which gun violence impacts people's lives.
GOLDSTEIN: There's not that buildup of the callous that people who've done this for a while, and not that they're desensitized, but occasionally that happens and to have young people like this doing that, was there any concern on the part of folks involved in the project to somehow shield the kids from part of it, in the sense that this can cause some psychological concern and this sort of thing? But even if it's the reality of their lives?
OFORI-ATTA: We thought very long about what we can do or what we should do for student journalists who are working on this project and one of the things you came to very early on was. That we need to provide some resource for students to understand how to cope when telling difficult stories. You sort of alluded to this, but this is the kind of work that is even difficult for a journalist with many, many years of experience and so we were upfront and honest about that in our recruiting and we told students that we would do what we could to make sure that they had access to information that they needed to sort of cope with reporting on this issue. One of the things that we did was host a webinar led by one of our reporters at The Trace who had spent the last two years covering gun violence survivors, which are folks who've been shot, hit by a bullet and survived. Those stories are often very sad, very grueling and tragic. And she'd spent a lot of time thinking about vicarious trauma and what it means to tell these stories and how to even talk to, talk and interview folks who are dealing with their own grief. And so she shared her experiences with the young reporters and will continue to do so even though the project is over.