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 Issue 19 • Feb. 19, 2019 • by Taylor Blatchford 

How 200 student journalists told 1,200 stories of American kids killed by guns

Writing the story of two siblings killed by their mother changed the way Auhjanae McGee thought about gun violence.

The high school senior in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, had grown up hearing about gun violence in the news, but thought of it as mainly school shootings or drug crime. This case was different. Bo Li Collier and Meigan Lin Collier, both 14, were shot and killed by their mother in October 2018 before she took her own life.

“Reporting on that opened my eyes to what gun violence can encompass and how often it happens in the home,” McGee said. “It’s not what I’d previously thought.”

The siblings’ stories were two of 1,200 reported by student journalists for Since Parkland, a massive national project published Feb. 12 by The Trace and the Miami Herald. The project’s premise was simple, yet almost impossibly ambitious: Tell the story of every child aged 0 to 18 killed in shootings during one year in America.

(Screenshot via Since Parkland)

Katina Paron and Beatrice Motamedi, both senior project editors and journalism educators, recruited more than 200 teenage journalists through their networks in journalism education and youth media. Having teens report the stories was key, Paron said, because they wanted to tell the stories of the victims’ lives from the perspective of a peer.

“This isn’t the realm of the adults,” she said. “Adults have to fix this problem, but teens can tell these stories.”

The process Paron describes sounds simple enough: Send a student journalist a link from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence incidents in real time. Check in on their progress as they write the story, which could take a few days or a few weeks. Edit and revise a rough draft. Send the finalized draft to assistant editors for fact-checking and copy editing. Save the finalized 100-word story in a folder and mark it as done.

Now multiply that by 1,200.

“We knew the scope of the project early on,” Paron said, “and keeping on track was key to the process for both of us. What’s ready and where is it?”

Social media posts and obituary websites provided most of the information for each profile, Madison Hahamy, a high school senior in Glencoe, Illinois, said.

She wrote 35 stories, including the youngest victim in the whole project: Tarique Morris, shot in a car with his parents at 3 months old in Ohio.

“The police officer described the scene and said the baby was alive, but wasn’t crying,” Hahamy said. “They put 0 as his age on the (Since Parkland) website and that really hit me. It wasn’t a 1. They rounded down.”

(Screenshot via Since Parkland)

The project was kept confidential until it published, and not talking with friends about the emotions brought up from reporting was challenging, Hahamy said. The journalists supported each other through a Slack channel, and editors hosted webinars about the emotional toll of reporting on trauma. McGee said she listened to music or cooked to help herself stay present.

“I kept thinking about the work we were doing and what the bigger picture of telling these stories meant,” Hahamy said. “What it would mean for the families of the boys and girls and children that weren’t able to speak for themselves anymore. Even though it was hard, it’s so much harder for the families that don’t have their child there anymore.”

Being able to find new information about a victim was the most rewarding part of reporting, said McGee, who wrote 19 profiles.

“I wrote about some teenage boys who had died, and the news sources only accounted for their deaths without naming family members or other sources who knew them,” she said. “They died without a trace.”

“Then I’d keep going through social media posts and would find someone who said, ‘This was my cousin,’ and realize he did have someone who cared about him and I can use this as a way to celebrate his life.”

After months of work and a final push to the finish line in The Trace’s Brooklyn newsroom, the project published Feb. 12, along with stories in the Miami Herald and other McClatchy publications that built on the students’ work.

But the reporting’s still not finished; about 90 stories are incomplete because there’s not enough information to know the victim’s name, Hahamy said. Reporters hope that families who don’t see their child’s name on the list will reach out and provide more information so they can do them justice.

Since the project published, family members of victims have reached out to compliment the students on their reporting, Hahamy said. It’s also been shared by presidential candidates and spread across the country.

The response has been “mind-blowing,” but the project’s goal wasn’t political at all, McGee said.

“They’ve died due to gun violence, but we weren’t trying to politicize gun usage,” she said. “It’s purely to talk about these kids and open a discussion about how gun violence affects youth in America.”

One tool we love

This week I have a double helping of tools for you, because Pipl and Zabasearch go hand in hand. Ready to boost your backgrounding (aka internet-stalking) skills?

Both sites work similarly: Enter the name of the person you want to find. You can add information like their phone number, email or city/state. Start the search, and within a few seconds you’ll get results that include public records, social media profiles, education and work history, related family members and contact information. The tools are perfectly legal, I assured my roommates after looking up their exes for them — the searches just pull from public sites like social media profiles and White Pages.

Pipl is my preference because it gives more information for free and also links to social media profiles. Zabasearch is worth cross-referencing, but will only provide some information before directing you to a paid background check site.

Reading list

How well does your high school track concussions? After reporting on the issue in its podcast, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting put together a form to help you get concussion information from your school district. Sign up here and engagement reporter Byard Duncan will email you more information.

The Auburn Plainsman found blackface and racist photos in old Auburn University yearbooks, including one on the page of Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey's sorority, Chip Brownlee and Loren Kimmel report. A yearbook editor said organizations traditionally submit their own content, but the yearbook’s staff now strives to filter content to “best reflect the integrity of Auburn University.”

Among the many threats to student press freedom, removing advisers is an especially effective way for censors to hurt a student publication, Zainab Sultan writes for CJR. “The adviser is also the institutional memory at the paper because students are transient,” media law professor Jonathan Peters said.

Opportunities and trainings

I want to hear from you — what would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share?
Email blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com.
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Edited by the wonderful Nancy Coleman.
This week's issue is brought to you thanks to discount Valentine's Day chocolate. No shame.

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