United States Project

Teenage journalists memorialize hundreds of gun-violence victims

February 12, 2019
JJ Hennessy, Beatrice Motamedi, Joe Meyerson, and Allie Kelly (from left) make final edits on the “Since Parkland” project at The Trace offices in Brooklyn. Photo by Amanda Darrach

On Saturday morning, a team of 20 journalists gathered at the Brooklyn offices of The Trace, a nonprofit outlet for gun-related news in the US. They were there to work on final edits for “Since Parkland,” a collection of 100-word profiles of nearly 1,200 children killed by gun violence in the year since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The reporters were teenagers, gathered from all over the country.

Allie Kelly—an 18-year-old high school senior from Denver, Colorado, and a student leader on “Since Parkland”—sat at a large conference table with Beatrice Motamedi, a senior editor on the project. Kelly showed Motamedi a new profile whose subject, 18-year-old Kamal Jackson, had died in October from injuries sustained in a drive-by shooting.

Kelly and two other students had found a Facebook page that purportedly belonged to Jackson and included photos in which Jackson and his friends posed with guns or posed with cash. Then the students discovered something they thought might reveal more of their subject’s identity: a write-up of a person who seemed to be Jackson, published seven years earlier, when he won his fifth-grade science fair. The story showed a young man who had Jackson’s name, smiling in front of a presentation poster that read “The Effects of Soda.”

Kelly, scanning the piece on her laptop, said, “This is why I love local papers.”

Motamedi tempered Kelly’s enthusiasm with skepticism. “It’s not enough that they have the same name and look the same,” Motamedi said. “You’ll have to call the school to confirm.”

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Since May 2018, a group of 215* student journalists have researched and written memorial profiles for “Since Parkland,” which went live this morning. (A print component of the project will run this weekend in the Miami Herald, Parkland’s regional paper, which houses the project on its site.) The Trace trained and paid high-school reporters to research and write profiles of young gun-violence victims, using a dataset obtained from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. The project omits child and teen suicides, which total more than 900 in the past year. According to Akoto Ofori-Atta, The Trace’s managing editor, the Gun Violence Archive data on suicides is less comprehensive, and many families wish to keep their children’s suicide private. In cases of murder-suicide, “Since Parkland” does not include profiles of gun-related suicide victims who killed someone else.

“We haven’t changed anything, covering this as adult reporters,” Motamedi says of gun-violence reporting. “These teens are the ones experiencing the phenomenon. They have a front row seat. They’ve got better sources.” Katina Paron, another senior editor for the project, says the direct connection to school shootings gives young reporters “an extra layer of buy-in.”

Motamedi, a former poetry fellow at Stanford who is based in Oakland, California, drew inspiration for the project from an obituary she remembers reading in the Chicago Tribune, for a soldier killed during the Vietnam War. “I didn’t know it was an obituary at first, because it was a blind lede,” she says. “It said what his nickname was, that he liked black t-shirts and Philly cheese steaks.” Only at the end of the piece did the article say that the soldier had died a day earlier in Vietnam. “I was devastated by that obituary,” Motamedi says. “I also read it with fresh eyes.”  

She and Paron teach their student reporters “brevity, compression, and the close reading of artifacts.” Profile details are sourced from press coverage of the fatal shooting, social media profiles of the victim, the online archive gunmemorial.org, and, occasionally, interviews with family members.

Kelly and her fellow editors say it can be impossible to find the details necessary to fully honor a life. Newspapers sometimes misspell the names of minority victims in multiple variations, they say, as in the case of Delametric Fairley, or else the press does not cite a name at all. Age, gender, and the location of the shooting may be all that is published.

“That’s when I start with Google Maps,” Kelly says. “If it has to be ‘Unknown Boy’ or ‘Girl,’ at least we can start with what the location looked like.” Any children for whom adequate details cannot be found are placed in a special category on the project’s website called “Stories Left to Tell,” where the work will continue.

The Trace offered a training on emotional health for their young reporters, as supervisors were mindful of the potential effects of the subject matter. I’ve worked with students in high-poverty schools, and I know they can be very difficult stories to report,” says Motamedi, “particularly when the victim, suspect, and the reporter are all in the same algebra class. Even veteran reporters haven’t had that experience.”

Students involved in the project say they draw inspiration from Parkland activists, and  remember exactly where they were when they heard about the attack. They also describe relief that the project offers a way to take action against a threat they have felt in their own lives. Kelly remembers a May 4, 2017, active-shooter threat at Denver East, her high school. She can sing the tune of the lockdown chime that plays over the PA system for drills. “I get an ache in the pit of my stomach every time I hear it,” she says. “I always pray it happens when I’m in my journalism classroom, where there’s a closet that locks. My calculus room has a glass door and big glass windows.”

By Saturday night, Motamedi, Kelly, and a few other editors regrouped with their laptops in the lobby of their hotel, a few blocks from The Trace offices. JJ Hennessy, a 16-year-old from Elmhurst, Illinois, continued a grim vigil he’d held all weekend; three days earlier, a bullet hit Dijon “Chase” Walker, 1, as he sat strapped into his car seat on Chicago’s South Side. Anxious not to leave Walker off the project, Hennessy had been trying to reach the nurse’s station at the hospital where Walker was last reported to be on life support. Joe Meyerson, an 18-year-old from Los Angeles, California, ended a phone interview with a mother whose 17-year-old had been shot and killed 3 weeks earlier, and went outside to call his own father. Other editors reached out to reporters who had not yet filed. Kelly sat cross-legged in the corner of a sectional, sipped tea, and kept writing. “Citizenship doesn’t begin at 18,”  Motamedi says. “Neither does the First Amendment. These kids aren’t afraid of the responsibility.”

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A previous version of this story incorrectly put the number of student-journalists involved at 238.

Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.