BY JIM FULLER, Daily Herald
Depending on how you look at it, the Daily Herald’s coverage of the March high school gun violence walkouts began either a month or a decade before the event.
The high school shooting that killed 17 people and wounded 17 more in Parkland, Fla., happened on the same day the Daily Herald had staff in the field covering the 10-year anniversary of the school shooting at Northern Illinois University. A decade had passed since school violence hit close to home for Daily Herald readers, but the danger clearly had never gone away.
Here’s a look at how the Daily Herald approached a story of this scope and emotional impact.
Start With The Right Sources
Lauren Carr was a student sitting in Cole Hall during the NIU shooting. She had 10 years of mental preparation for the day the Parkland shooting transformed her into an activist.
She was a natural choice to provide perspective on how to direct coverage of the high school walkouts. And she was a speaker at one the larger high school walkouts in Barrington.
As it became clear there would be walkouts at dozens of schools, reporters who covered schools as part of their beats started picking the brains of administrators about what they expected to happen in their buildings and how they’d respond.
Share Many Voices
We wrote several stories about those decisions and put our social media team on high alert to watch discussions in the comment sections and on our various Facebook pages that might hint at the hot spots or new sources of information. The social media debates, although heated at times, also provided a window into what readers wanted and expected in the coverage to come.
With such a hotly debated topic, balance would be key.
With that in mind, editors invited superintendents to write guest columns explaining their approaches to either let students walk or impose disciplinary actions.
And we also mined school administrators and social media for information about students who might be vocal about choosing not to participate in the walkouts, or, in one case, stage a counter-protest in support of arming teachers.
Based on that source work, editors assigned a team of seven reporters and seven photographers (including one with a drone) to cover the action at 10 schools in the coverage area.
All of the walkouts were coordinated events. Readers didn’t need seven stories that all read pretty much the same. So the directive to the reporting teams at each school was to find an angle unique to that school’s protest to focus on.
The reporters would then feed vignette-style nuggets back to an editor, who would organize and compile the main story, drawing from the most interesting sights and sounds. The approach allowed for a constantly updating web story with new vignettes and photos throughout the day of the walkouts.
The unique, lead item for the main piece came from the discovery of a high school student in our coverage area participating in the walkouts who was a student at Sandy Hook Elementary School when a school shooter murdered 20 children there in 2012.
Use All The Tools In Your Toolkit
On social media, the photo team produced drone footage for a Facebook Live event that followed the student marchers in Barrington as they left their school and headed through the streets of downtown to a main rallying point. The aerial footage provided a unique viewpoint of how large the protest was as well as the public reactions to the protesters as they marched through the community.
Luck was also a factor.
At a time when newsroom personnel and resources are at a premium, the decision to dedicate so many reporters, photographers and editors to one effort was a big decision. What if another major story broke? And what the entire rest of the paper?
The fact that the walkouts all started roughly at the same time and ended within about an hour meant the dedication of resources would be large, but it wouldn’t take up so much time that there would be no other local news for the rest of the paper.
All the groundwork laid with sources ahead of time also helped direct the efforts of the reporting teams on the ground rather than grabbing random color and quotes from students who had the most intriguing protest signs.
Why We Do This
Readers responded to the coverage with some of the best web traffic and social media engagement in all of 2018. The balance in the coverage went a long way in buffering the all-too-frequent claims of bias and fake news readers toss around in recent months. There was something for everyone.
As a bonus, if the worst happens, and a school shooting occurs in our coverage area, reporters built a whole new web of sources and trust in the local education community and within the gun control debate to help ensure another balanced effort when the pressure to get it right will be even more intense.
- James Fuller is a senior writer at the Daily Herald and the Adviser/Business Manager for the Courier student newspaper at the College of DuPage. He also serves on the boards of the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association and the Illinois Community College Journalism Association.