In Parkland, journalism students take on role of reporter and survivor

February 21, 2018
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School can be see on February 17, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Last Thursday, the day after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Melissa Falkowski texted her students. As the school’s newspaper adviser, the teacher knew she and her students had a responsibility. “[I told them] nobody could tell this story the way that we could tell it,” she says. “The kids really embraced that.”

On that fateful Wednesday afternoon, their community lost 17 of its own—a soccer player, football coach, geography teacher, and member of the marching band among them—after a gunman opened fire at the school. Already, members of the school newspaper, The Eagle Eye, along with its broadcast journalism program, WMSD-TV, are sharing their experiences in their own outlets and in the national spotlight, treading the increasingly murky line between journalism and activism.

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Two of The Eagle Eye’s staffers, Nikhita Nookala and Christy Ma, are leading their newspaper’s coverage. During the shooting, as the fire alarm rang for a second time that day, Nookala and Ma, both seniors (Ma is a staff editor and Nookala a staff writer), were in journalism class. Nookala left the classroom with another classmate before other students and staff, having realized this wasn’t a drill, yelled for them to get into a classroom, and quick. She took cover in a sweltering classroom closet one floor below, while Ma, along with 18 of her journalism classmates, hid in a closet upstairs. Law enforcement would later usher a total of 163 students and six teachers into the journalism classroom to hide.

And then, incredibly, Nookala, Ma, and other members of the newspaper staff, even before they’d been evacuated to safety, began to report the story.

“We were very consciously aware that even if it was a false alarm, even if it was a drill, this was a story,” Nookala says. “My thought was to get the pictures now. The story you can get from other news sources later. My only thought was for people to get as much footage as possible.”

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The Eagle Eye staff took photos and videos of students and teachers crammed into classroom closets and, later, of students being evacuated from the building, their hands above their heads. Ryan Deitsh, a staff reporter for both The Eagle Eye and the school’s television station, tweeted videos of students being led into a classroom to hide, and of a procession of students running to safety, surrounded by law enforcement. Another student reporter, David Hogg, interviewed students from inside a dark closet.

“We tried to have as many pictures as possible to display the raw emotion that was in the classroom,” Ma says. “We were working really hard so that we could show the world what was going on and why we need change.”

When Falkowski texted the staff the next day, she gently nudged them to start thinking about how they might cover the events rapidly unfolding around them. They’d all been through an unspeakable tragedy, but as reporters from across the country flocked to their hometown, “we knew that we need to step up right now,” says Nookala. This was their story. And telling it was as much about ownership as it was about beginning what will undoubtedly be a difficult reckoning with their own trauma and grief.

Ma volunteered to write The Eagle Eye’s first news story about the shooting, and enlisted the help of Nookala as co-author. They worked together in a Google Doc, piecing together a chronology of trauma. The story, which ran on February 18, recounted the day’s events—the alarm, the panic, the waiting, the news of 17 of their classmates’ and teachers’ violent deaths, including one of Nookala’s friends, Carmen Schentrup.

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The story was difficult for both students to write. But the familiarity of gathering the facts, conducting interviews, and stitching together a narrative was a source of comfort during a time of great need. “The coverage has to start at some point. So why not start it right now? In between our grief and struggling with the emotions of surviving a traumatic event, we have moments where we need to do something,” says Nookala. “I can’t sleep.”

“This is the way I let out my feelings,” she adds, “and how I feel like I’m making an impact on Douglas and on the community.”

These student reporters are modeling a different way of approaching the always-delicate task of interviewing people immediately after they’ve experienced trauma. In the aftermath of mass shootings and other disasters, journalists working on deadline are inevitably criticized for parachuting into communities they don’t know and pushing microphones and notebooks into the faces of the grieving. But Ma, Nookala, and their classmates—already known and trusted as press on campus—have a unique advantage. They don’t have to imagine the position their subjects are in, because they’re in it, too. They’re reporters and survivors.

The pair published a second story on February 19, focused on the candlelight vigil held at Pine Trails Park to honor the victims. Instead of interviewing students at the emotional event, held just one day after the shooting, they pooled their sources and, through such avenues as group chats, solicited comments from willing students in an effort to protect their classmates—and themselves—from the anxiety of being approached while at the memorial.

Nookala and Ma are careful to stress that they support journalists coming into town to report on this important story, and say that many reporters interviewed students at the vigil without incident. But some upsetting moments stick out, such as when a reporter, after interviewing a student at the vigil, asked what city they were in.

Nookala heard about another student who was approached by a reporter and asked about an “emo gazebo” at Douglas, and whether the “freaks” sat there. Students were also questioned on the false conspiracy theory around Douglas students Hogg and Emma Gonzalez—who have spoken out loudly in support of gun reform as a legislative fix—which claims the two are so-called “crisis actors” and not actually students at Douglas High. These kinds of questions, Ma says, aren’t just insensitive. They’re irrelevant.

“It angers me as an editor and as a writer that they’re trying to divert the attention of the public from what really matters,” she says. They’re producing their own stories in an attempt to shift that focus. In this way, Nookala and Ma use journalism to contribute to the larger advocacy movement that has blossomed at Douglas since the shooting; they planned to send reporters to Tallahassee to cover a scheduled meeting with state legislators yesterday, and will cover the CNN-hosted town hall scheduled to air tonight. Nookala and Ma say their focus is on what students are doing to recover from the trauma, including concrete political action, and not on the partisan commentary that’s become a staple of many cable news shows.

“We have the power to be an independent source of media,” says Nookala. “We don’t have an obligation to report on or to fit into the narrative of any left or right lens.”

Ma adds that the student body might better receive news updates if they come from trusted peers. That they are accountable only to their classmates—they are, in effect, a hyperlocal news outlet—allows them to make strategic decisions about how to use their resources and where to focus their coverage, and grants freedom from the pressures major news organizations must consider. They’ll have to make those decisions soon; the school’s next quarterly print edition, set to run in March, will be totally scrapped and redesigned to tell the story of the shooting.

Eric Garner, the broadcast instructor for the past 11 years, says he has been calling, emailing, and texting his students nonstop since last Wednesday, many of whom he barricaded in his classroom during the rampage. Their weekly WMSD broadcast is, unsurprisingly, on hiatus. But that doesn’t mean the students have been idle. Some have been tapping into the broadcast expertise they learned in the classroom to push for change. “A lot of my students are out there doing the interviews and the whole media circuit,” he says. “There’s a comfort level they’ve gotten from being in my class, from being in front of the camera. They’re not scared of that. We’re doing it all the time.”

Senior David Hogg, who is WMSD’s news director, interviewed his fellow classmates during the massacre and has also become one of the most visible faces in its aftermath. The thoughtful, media-savvy student journalist has been vocal on cable news, passionately proclaiming on places like CNN: “We’re children. You guys are the adults….Work together, come over your politics and get something done.” Delaney Tarr, a senior and another of Garner’s students, delivered a rousing speech at a rally on Saturday, calling for swift and immediate change: “Because of these gun laws, people that I know, people that I love, have died, and I will never be able to see them again.” A total of 43 students belong to school’s print/online journalism program; another 200 are in the broadcast program.

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Even before Trump was elected, conversations about the blurred lines between journalism and activism swelled in media circles. Falkowski has been thinking about this convergence a lot since last week’s shooting. She’s not interested in telling false equivalences, and neither are her students. “Sometimes we get wrapped up with having to tell both sides,” she says. “But sometimes one side might not necessarily be the truth. Now I think we’re going to think about what is the truth and how do we tell that truth?

For Ma and Nookala, the lines that divide journalism and advocacy remain stark, at least in their reporting. But on social media, like many of their peers, that line blurs. They don’t shy away from issues like gun control in their tweets, mirroring a larger industry debate about whether complete objectivity is possible, or even desired, and about when it is appropriate for journalists to share opinions on the internet.

Still, the student newsroom is faced with the same dilemmas—and choices—as all working journalists. Nookala laments that the shooter’s face (and stories about his homelife) seemed to crowd coverage of the victims, and of the survivors now rallying political support for gun control—a longstanding journalistic dilemma. The student reporters can’t control the decisions of mainstream media, but they can make journalistic calls of their own: Neither of the stories Ma and Nookala wrote for The Eagle Eye focus on the shooter.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High is a school with journalism and activism in its roots, or at least in its name. In the aftermath of tragedy, it’s only fitting for its students and teachers to channel the spirit of their namesake. A former Miami Herald reporter, Marjory Stoneman Douglas tackled causes like feminism, racial justice, and conservation in the early 20th century, long before they became part of the national dialogue. She later became a champion of the Everglades, dedicating her life to its survival.

Now, for some of the school’s students and teachers, that dedication has been reignited, focused on ensuring a shooting never happens on school grounds again—through rallies, marches to the statehouse, and, of course, journalism. “One of my newspaper editors texted me that night, after everything happened,” Falkowski recalls. “And she said, ‘We are going to use the newspaper to change the world.’”

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Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated The Eagle Eye hadn’t published the name of the shooter. The name does appear in their first story. 

Alexandria Neason and Meg Dalton are the authors of this article. Neason is CJR's Senior Staff Writer. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas. Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.