Four student journalists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School describe the experience of reporting on the shooting that occurred at their own school.
In this episode of The First Five, Gene Policinski spoke with the staff of The Eagle Eye, the student newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were killed in a mass shooting on Feb. 14, 2018.
Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute.
Melissa Falkowski, newspaper advisor to The Eagle Eye
Christy Ma, associate editor of The Eagle Eye
Nikhita Nookala, staff reporter for The Eagle Eye
Rebecca Schneid, editor-in-chief of The Eagle Eye
Gene Policinski: Welcome to the First Five, a program of the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. First Five is a podcast where we cut through the legal jargon and explain to you exactly how your First Amendment freedoms work and what you could do to protect them. I’m your host, Gene Policinski.
Even as the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was still stalking the hallways of that Parkland, Florida school, the young journalists for the school’s newspaper, the Eagle Eye, and their electronic media counterparts recognized they were not only involved in a major story but had a responsibility to report on it as well. Their work has gained high praise from full-time journalists and thrust them into the dual roles of, as one put it, being both a victim and a reporter.
First Five spoke recently with some of the news staff of the Eagle Eye, and here’s what they had to say in their own words. We’ll hear first from Melissa Falkowski, the newspaper advisor, and then from associate editor Christy Ma and staff reporter Nikhita Nookala, who wrote the first stories about the shooting in which 17 students and teachers died, and then from one of three editors in chief of the Eagle Eye, Rebecca Schneid. All in their own words.
Melissa Falkowski, the newspaper advisor.
Melissa: One of the things we started this year is covering safety, so I guess we went to a convention last year, the year before. One of the things someone said in the class is that we should be covering things about safety, fire drills and things like that. And so especially with all the work that had been done here at our school to revamp our safety plans, if that was a drill, that was certainly a story. If it was not a drill and a false alarm, it was certainly a story because it was so disruptive and strange and outside the norm. And I think if it wasn’t what it was, it would have opened itself to an in-depth story about what the school is doing to prepare different safety plans.
I mean, I think my kids are always looking for a story. I can’t say that that’s because of me, because I think that’s just kind of like what we do. We’re always looking for good stories and it was definitely a story. I know I had kids who were with me, and as soon as we came out of the closet they were recording video of the SWAT team and taking pictures. I don’t know; I just think it’s what we do, so it’s kind of instinctual.
Gene Policinski: Associate editor, Christy Ma.
Christy: At first it was really difficult. I mean, Falkowski sent out a reminder saying that at the vigil, which was the day after the incident, she just said that we have to cover this but only if you’re able to and you’re emotionally willing to because it’s really hard since we’re journalists but we’re also survivors and so it was just really hard to wrap our minds around what happened. But I volunteered to do it just because someone had to do it, and someone had to do this story because if we didn’t, then I just think it would just be a shame to not do it because we’re a student publication. This is our school and so we should be the ones telling the story first, especially. And so that’s why Nikhita and I decided to write the stories.
It was hard to find people at first just because we had to be sensitive of how students were feeling and what the other students experienced because we don’t know exactly which students were in the building at the time or who were hiding in closets. So what we did is we actually just messaged in group chats to see if anyone was open to being interviewed. We didn’t ask people specifically just to make sure that they were emotionally ready. And we gave them questions in advance and just told them that whatever question they feel comfortable answering was something that would help our story.
There were some students who didn’t come up to the plate to answer, which was totally fine because they must be going through an immense struggle right now. But thankfully, a lot of students actually came up to us and gave us their stories, and we’re really thankful to those students who were strong enough to do that.
Gene Policinski: Jennifer Porter, Nikhita Nookala.
Jennifer: Our main goal was to have something that was objectively about what happened, with all the facts and accurate, and to make sure that we honored the victims and to make sure that the students were telling the story of the students because a lot of times the mainstream media will pick up a story like this and it’ll become really political, really fast. We’ve definitely observed that happening. And it’s important to keep the victims in mind here, and that’s really what it’s about so we wanted to make sure that story was told.
Nikhita: At the vigil, me and Christy were obviously very emotional as well, and we could see that all of our classmates were not in the best place. It was a very sad event but it was something that we had to cover. So we didn’t interview anyone on the spot. We didn’t go up to people while they were crying or while they were saying hi to their friends. We didn’t interrupt those moments. But after, we asked some people that we knew to reflect their experience, and that’s how we got our quotes and things like that for the article. People are viewing it as a tribute to the victims and to keep their memory alive. Obviously, we haven’t had the chance to cover each victim individually but that’s in the work, and I think it’s important to remember their lives and to remember what they contributed to Douglas, and that’s definitely something we’re working towards.
Gene Policinski: One of three editors-in-chief of The Eagle Eye, Rebecca Schneid.
Rebecca: I think that right now we’re working on putting out stories about people that we lost and about the people who showed so much heroism on that day and were willing to sacrifice themselves for people. What we’re hoping to do within the next couple of weeks is come out with a print issue where we pay tribute to the victims and those that were injured and those kinds of people, and those that showed heroism on that day, and we hope to make it kind of a memorial issue.
And although our personal positions on politics at the time are definitely present and we will be reporting on that as well, I think that this memorial issue for now is going to be completely separate from that, and then we’ll have additional reporting on the march and on … That many of us are going to anyway. And on the activism and political aspect of it. And I’m sure in our next print issue after the memorial issue, we’ll get into that. But we think that our primary goal for right now, for the next couple of weeks, is going to be to tell the stories of students because there are a lot of us that have been giving interviews and getting in the spotlight, but some people I find haven’t had a chance to [inaudible 00:08:05] tell their story to people yet, and so we’re hoping to let the newspaper be the place where somebody could come and tell their story to somebody. And whether or not they want us to publish it, we can be an outlet for them. I think that’s our primary goal right now, is to tell the stories of those 17 people and of the countless other ones that were immensely affected.
There’s a kind of sensitivity that might be lacking in some of the reporting, and of the emotions of survivors that have acute stress sort disorder and large crowds make them anxious, and they’re blocking the way from the junior lot to school this morning. That’s a personal thing for me, and as a journalist I find that not only do you have a duty to tell somebody’s story but to make sure that they’re comfortable telling it because I find that my job is to give voice to the people that want their voice to be heard but don’t necessarily have the resources to always say it. And that’s what I find my role to be. But if somebody doesn’t necessarily want this, for it to be told or isn’t comfortable telling it at that time, I think that it’s important for journalists to understand that and to realize that.
I think that many, many publications that I talked to personally outside of the newspaper, that my friends have, have been extremely comforting and were making sure to tell us that if we’re uncomfortable at any time that we don’t have to say it anymore. But you know, there’s always going to — and I think that this is true in any kind of tragedy, in any kind of story — there’s always going to be reporters who don’t necessarily understand the scope of their job and the scope of their role, and maybe … But I think that that’s a kind of constant in this world, you know?
Gene Policinski: Thank you for being with us today for another episode of the First Five, a production of the Newseum Institute, located in the Newseum in the heart of Washington, D.C. The Newseum, where there’s more to every story. For more information about the Newseum Institute, go to newseuminstitute.org. I’m Gene Policinski.