Kira Davis never met King Thomas III, but she felt a connection to him that she couldn’t explain. “I just felt like he was there with me,” she said. “We were the same age. He was a true kid with passion, just like me.”
King was shot and killed during a home invasion in Fort Worth, Texas. He was only 15, the same age as Davis when she set out to write a portrait about his life. “I wanted his legacy to be something he would have wanted,” said Davis, who lives in Los Angeles.
Davis learned about King, an aspiring rapper, by listening to music he performed and posted on SoundCloud. That research gave her the direction she needed to write something she thought would do King justice. She composed the profile in the form of a rap.
Davis’s tribute was one of more than a thousand written by student journalists for “Since Parkland,” a yearlong project by The Trace and The Miami Herald. In 100-word profiles, teen reporters memorialize young people fatally shot during the 12 months that began with the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The project grew out of the realization that the national gun debate had become a conversation with and about kids. Reporters and editors at The Trace and The Herald wanted to help readers understand the scale and contours of gun violence, beyond school shootings. And they wanted young people to be the driving force in their coverage.
Beatrice Motamedi, founder of the student journalism network Global Student Square and one of two senior editors on the project, positioned the concept to students as a way to take ownership of an issue that’s come to define their childhood. “This is not my generation’s story anymore,” she told them.
“This is really yours.”
From the beginning, the student journalists didn’t shy away from subject matter that would send some adults running. In fact, many wanted to use their work to send grownups a strong message.
“The fact that these stories were written by teens about teens and kids should be a pretty big slap in the face, to create a fire under them,” said Lila Taylor, a 17-year-old junior from Clayton High School in Clayton, Missouri.
Most of the reporters were recruited through student journalism networks and school newspapers, though for some the project was their first experience as reporters.
Aujanae McGee, a high school senior from Detroit, wasn’t sure what to expect when she signed on. But she says she realized the value of the work when she got her first assignment.
“I was able to celebrate this person’s life,” she said. “It wasn’t just tragic. They weren’t just another victim I saw on the local news.”
The students started with leads sourced from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, which aggregates information on shootings from media and law enforcement reports. The data provided by GVA includes names, ages, locations, and links to news articles, where available. But it is incomplete, and in some cases students had only a name or an age and place to go on.
So students scoured Google and social media and made the delicate calls to families of victims. Having these conversations was difficult, said Holly Kauck, 16, but she found “it made me feel better to say ‘I’m so sorry that this happened to you and I’m so sorry for your loss.’”
Sarah Baum was 12 years old when she and six other frightened band members crammed into a closet with their teacher waiting for the lockdown to be over. It wasn’t until they were given the all clear that they were told there had been a shooting at another school. About an hour and a half away, a gunman had killed 20 6- and 7-year-olds and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.
“I grew up on lockdowns, but this was different,” said the 18-year-old, now a freshman at Hofstra University.
Baum wrote and edited 15 profiles. None of the victims she wrote about died in a school shooting.
While what happened in Parkland and at Sandy Hook continues to shape students’ classroom experiences in dramatic ways, the teen reporters learned that gun violence among children isn’t all about school shootings, which accounted for less than 1 percent of youth gun deaths between February 2018 and February 2019. Students reported on accidental shootings, murder-suicides, and shootings involving domestic violence and gangs and drugs. (The project excluded victims who died by intentional suicide or in a police-involved shooting. Read more about the methodology here.)
“One I will never forget is this man who shot his five children, all of them under the age of 5,” said Sokhna Fall, a 17-year-old from New York. Only one of the children survived.
As part of their training, the student reporters were urged to emphasize the lives victims had led, more than the circumstances of their deaths. “Even if these victims may have had a criminal record or had their own gun on them at the time, they are just kids,” said Joe Meyerson, a high school senior from Los Angeles. “And they are just as much a part of this as any victim of a school shooting.”
Gathering material for the profiles, students noticed the ways news coverage differs between communities. “I live in a really nice suburb, so gun violence really isn’t common around here,” said Kauck, who lives in Elmhurst, Illinois. “If something like that happened here, I know it would be all over the news and every single person in my town would know what happened. In other places, it's so common that no one really pays that much attention.”
Meyerson said he was surprised by the frequency of errors in news stories. “These are young men, young women, and kids who have been gunned down. How do you get their name wrong? How do you get where they lived wrong? How do you get their school wrong?” he said. “It’s something that aggravated me and made me want to be more truthful, more diligent, and really make sure our facts were straight.”
Taniayah Dorsett, a 16-year-old from Vallejo, California, used most of one 100-word profile to point out several misspellings of a victim’s name across various news reports.
“The Clarion-Ledger called him Dementric,” she wrote. “NBC/ABC affiliate WDAM 7 used Delametric in a story and Delmetric for a photo caption. The Gun Violence Archive listed him as Dementric… According to his family and Facebook, his name was Delametric Djaun Fairley.”
Reporting on gun violence can take a toll on any journalist. Senior project editor Katina Paron made sure to tell her reporters to take breaks throughout the project and checked in on them regularly. In December, a reporter from The Trace hosted a webinar for students about reporting on trauma. She shared how she sets boundaries for her work, and how she recognizes signs that she might need a timeout. She also recommended making time for health and wellness and finding outlets to safely process difficult stories.
Michael Pincus, a sophomore at Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, Florida, said he struggled at first.
“It’s really morbid writing about the lives of other kids who were killed,” said the 16-year-old. “It takes you to a very dark place.”
To cope, he reminded himself that this was necessary work. “Hopefully, people will realize these children are not just statistics,” he said.
Despite the emotional toll, students said they were determined to tell the stories of these young victims — many of whom received limited news coverage when they died.
“I had not the best view of journalism, I think just because I only associated it with my local news, where I had seen so many negative stories,” said McGee, who used music and cooking as coping strategies throughout the project. Now, she plans to pursue a career as a long-form reporter. “I didn’t know how different and multifaceted journalism could be.”
Several of the teen journalists said they could not help but see themselves in the kids they covered.
During the reporting process, they often discovered that they shared something in common with the victims they were writing about: the same hometown, the same hobbies, the same age. Those small connections reinforced the magnitude of their task.
“Every now and then, I’ll be writing or editing a profile and I’ll think, well this kid that I’m writing about could have been writing,” said Meyerson. “They could have been a part of The Trace project.”
McGee remembers writing the profile of 18-year-old Nasjay Murry, in whom she saw shades of herself. Both young women were the oldest of three. Both were close to their families and babysat their siblings while in school. And both were accepted to Ivy League schools: McGee will leave her home in Detroit to attend Princeton University in the fall. And Murry had landed a spot at Brown University, just months before she was killed at a party. She would have been the first in her family to graduate from college.