Parkland Student Journalists' Book Gives New Perspective on the Tragedy, Reporting

Marjory Stoneman Douglas teachers Eric Garner and Melissa Falkowski, who co-edited the recently released We Say #NeverAgain: Reporting By the Parkland Student Journalists, talk about the book, their students, news instincts, and finding a way to keep going.

Before the country came to know David Hogg as an activist and one of the leaders of the March for Our Lives movement, most had watched video of him interviewing fellow students while hiding from a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School in Parkland, FL, on February 14, 2018. Before he was an activist, household name, Twitter troll target, and part of the core of a national movement, Hogg was a student reporter—one who acted on journalistic instincts during a terrifying situation.

“That’s what David did,” MSD broadcasting teacher Eric Garner says. “He picked up his camera and he went. He had done that for every other event, everything else that had happened in the city. This happened. So what did he do? He picked up his camera and he went. That training was there. It was always there.”

Melissa Falkowski and Eric Garner

Garner and MSD’s newspaper teacher, Melissa Falkowski, spoke to attendees at the SLJ Leadership Summit in Brooklyn on Oct. 27. The two co-edited the recently released book We Say #NeverAgain: Reporting by the Parkland Student Journalists written by current MSD students and some who graduated last year.

“We had so many offers, it was impossible to do them all,” says Falkowski. “For me, it was selecting the ones for the kids that I thought were the most impactful and the most healing and a way for them to express themselves. That was my direction in terms of which projects should we do. That’s also how we ended up doing this book, which is such a different experience for us.”

In the book, students from the newspaper and broadcast classes write in the first person. They discuss not only the events of the day but the aftermath, but telling readers what it’s like to have people say they just want fame or are crisis actors, taking on the issue of gun violence, covering and being a part of civil disobedience, dealing with politicians, handling trauma, and more. One entry gives advice to professional journalists for the next time they cover a tragedy.

The book also has some “Extraordinary Acts” entries spotlighting people who acted courageously on that day. Those stories originally ran on the school newspaper’s website, eagleeye.news.

“The kids drove the content, which is important,” Falkowski says about the book. “The kids drive the content of our publications, so it feels natural for them to drive the content of the book. At the end, we didn’t have a chapter about coping with trauma. We felt like it was important and it was missing, so one of my students stepped in at the last minute and wrote that.”

One entry called “Tweeting for Change” is an interview with student Carlitos Rodriguez. A YouTube vlogger who found a love for television production in Garner’s class, Rodriguez started @StoriesUntoldUS, a Twitter feed that gives voice to those who haven’t been given a platform. His friend Joaquin Oliver was killed. His friend Anthony Borges was shot five times after barricading a door and using his body as a shield to protect others in the room.

In the story, Rodriguez says that @StoriesUntoldUS “amplifies the voices of people who were there but feel silenced and people who want to be heard. Right now, our main focus is people who have been affected by gun violence because we want to show our support for the March for Our Lives movement and impact the midterm elections this November.”

Garner describes Rodriguez as quiet, not a kid that gets a lot of attention at school. The student has now reached out to others like him at the school and beyond and been told stories by people who were at Columbine and at the Pulse nightclub, and those involved in other shootings whose stories haven’t been told by the media.

“That’s really good reporting, to tell the stories of people nobody knows,” Falkowski says.

The two teachers know good reporting, and they are trying to pass that sense on to their students in preparation for future careers.

“I’m training my kids to be the next, I hope, New York Times reporters and Washington Post reporters,” Falkowski says. “And he’s training his kids to be the next generation of broadcast journalists.”

They know that the national media moves on, and both offer the positive and negatives of that inevitable occurrence.

“When I talk to the March for Our Lives kids, a lot of my conversation with them is news cycle,” Garner says.

"They were journalism kids and debate kids and student government kids, theater kids...They came up through these amazing programs at our school that empower kids every day to debate and to read and to ask questions. They were ready. They were there, and they were ready.”—Falkowski

His concern was not really about the kids losing media attention. His concern was their mental health. Garner and Falkowski worry about those core students that have been going nonstop since the shooting. First he asked what their plan was for the day after the march. Lately, he’s been asking what happens Nov. 7, when the election that has become their focus is over. What happens if they lose one of the races they worked so hard to impact? Is there a tidal wave of emotion [or something?] waiting just off shore, he worries.

Falkowski, too, thinks about those students who are tired and may not have properly grieved yet. When it comes to the media spotlight, she has tried to be a role model. She used that day and those immediately after the shooting to do every media interview she could to get her message out, her way, to convey her outrage, to honor those who died, to support her students. Every speaking engagement, everything she does, including the book, is with a purpose: to keep people from forgetting while moving toward healing.

“When I was being interviewed, they ask, ‘Are you surprised these kids are out there and saying stuff?’ ’No, you don’t know these kids,’” she told the Summit audience. “We’ve been working in this community a long time, and they were empowered before.…They were journalism kids and debate kids and student government kids, theater kids, all of that core of March for Our Lives. They came up through these amazing programs at our school that empower kids every day to debate and to read and to ask questions. They were ready. They were there, and they were ready.”

She laughed for a moment then added, “People sent us letters. They would send us talking points. The kids didn’t need talking points.”

That was clear to anyone who saw Hogg’s video interviews from the closet.

“He had done that for every other event, everything else that had happened in the city,” says Garner. “This happened. So what did he do? He picked up his camera and he went. That training was there. It was always there.”

For Hogg and the other TV and newspaper students who began documenting the situation before they even knew exactly what was happening, reporting was also a coping mechanism, according to Garner.

“They were sitting in the darkness, didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to feel,” he says. “It gave them purpose. It gave them a direction.”

Newspaper and broadcast students documented the events the of the day, the next day’s vigil and onward, including creating a documentary and reporting as guest correspondents for The Guardian at March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, in March.

“The coverage they did and the reporting they did immediately and in the months after, a lot of them said that was really healing for them, because it gave them something to do,” says Falkowski, who "had to text" her newspaper staff the night of the shooting when she learned there would be a memorial vigil the next day.

“'If you're ready—I know you’re not ready—but if anyone feels like they can take pictures at the vigil and interview people and capture the moment, this is our story and no one else can tell our story better than us,’” she remembers writing. “Who would be more compassionate in their reporting than the students who were there and understand what it was like to be there that day?

“We were up and reporting within 24 hours of the shooting.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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