"Valentine's Day was a day of love, passion and friendships as Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School celebrated February 14, 2018 ..."
That's how the student journalists writing for the Eagle Eye, the newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, started their story about one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern history.
That first line flowed quickly for senior Christy Ma, but the rest of the article took days to write as she relived the events.
Student journalists often face a challenge balancing their roles as students and objective reporters. In the past year, intrepid high school journalists have made headlines for their coverage. But writing about your school becomes even harder when everyone else is writing about it, too.
Christy, 18, and fellow senior Nikhita Nookala, 17, found themselves in this situation last week. They're Eagle Eye staff members, and together they wrote the paper's coverage of both the Feb. 14 shooting and the candlelight vigil that followed.
Christy and Nikhita take their positions as journalists seriously. But that doesn't mean it hasn't been hard to write about the shooting. They're hurting, too, and so are the thousands of other Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who lost friends, coaches or a teacher.
I spoke with Christy and Nikhita earlier this week about their roles. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let's start at the beginning. How did you decide to write these stories?
Nikhita Nookala: Our adviser, Melissa Falkowski, sent us a message the day after the shooting. She told us, "I know it will be extremely hard for you, but the vigil is something we're going to have to cover." So when we started writing the article, we found it impossible to write about the vigil without addressing the shooting itself. That's when we split it into two articles. We both helped each other with content and Christy helped with the editing so that we could get them up in a timely fashion and portray all of the events with as much accuracy as we had knowledge of.
Christy Ma: Mrs. Falkowski understood how hard it was to be student journalists at a time like this. She told us that at the vigil, it was optional for us to take pictures, even though, as journalists, we should be taking pictures. It was really hard to interview students and take pictures of these raw moments because we were feeling [it] as well. Fortunately, we had a couple of brave student photographers that took pictures to show the world what's going on here in Parkland. We weren't able to interview people at the vigil, but we contacted people afterward who were ready to speak.
Was there any input from your other Eagle Eye staff members about how you would cover this?
Nikhita: The staff — there are about 40 of us — a lot of them had lost a friend or close friend or were close to the coaches that died, and they're just not ready to get back into things yet. They haven't communicated that they were ready to take part in any of our coverage yet. I'm sure they'll be back on it when we get back to school, but for right now, we're only taking volunteers and people that are ready to take on that challenge. We're not forcing anyone to do anything.
How did you identify students that might be ready to speak to you?
Christy: It was kind of hard to find students who were OK with speaking. The shooting only happened last week, so it's still something that's really painful to talk about. But what we did is, we're in a lot of group chats with a lot of friends and a lot of other classmates, so we just asked in general if anyone is up to speak. And thankfully, a lot of students have been strong enough to speak right now and to make their points clear to the media, so we're really grateful for their strength for that.
Nikhita: That's the same thing I did. I just put a message out in our group chats like, "If anyone would like to speak, just message me privately and we'll have a conversation." Thankfully, a few of them responded and we were able to quote them in our articles.
How do you guys think of your roles as student journalists now? Is it any different from before the shooting, when you were writing for an audience of your peers?
Nikhita: Our role has definitely changed in terms of who's watching and who's listening. I mean, you're talking to us right now. Before the shooting, no one would have contacted us about our online articles. But the world is watching, and it's important more than ever, right now, that our own media is as accurate and as reliable as we can make it.
Christy: For those first two articles specifically, it was hard to do it objectively, as we were survivors of this incident. We decided to co-write just to keep each other in check and to make sure that what we're saying is not editorialized and to make sure that it's logical and fact-based.
How have you balanced your roles between living this experience and covering it?
Nikhita: I would describe it as dissociation, for lack of a better term. When I write about a certain event, I try not to base the article off of my experience. I read media coverage; I look at all the pictures. Then, I try to write in a way that shows the truth as objectively as possible.
Christy: Believe me, I feel very angry and hurt while writing these articles — wondering why I even have to write such articles. There are hundreds of questions popping up in my mind — but writing these articles also in a way gives me the healing I need. I feel like I am contributing in telling the stories of those who cannot. My job as a journalist is to report what happened, objectively and truthfully, in order for readers to receive this information and be able to trust what is given to them. That way, readers can choose to either answer with indifference or with action after seeing all sides of the story.
There have been a number of students talking with the media. Do those voices capture the various perspectives and opinions at your school?
Nikhita: The kids who are ready to speak and who are old enough and experienced enough to be confident in speaking are the ones talking to the media. When enough time has passed, I'm sure more students will be speaking out.
Christy: It may seem like the media is only focusing its attention on a select few, but I know what they are saying is something that nearly all students and staff at our school can agree to. This is their own way of contributing and honoring the victims. They don't want the 17 victims to die in vain, and so they are using their outspoken voices to prevent this from happening in other schools and public places in the country through the #NeverAgain movement. It's the media's job to give a microphone for the voices shouting for change.
But it's also important to remember that sometimes, that microphone is edited. In one of your articles, you quote a student frustrated that some journalists wrote things that were exaggerated or possibly even wrong.
Christy: At our friend Carmen's funeral, we both noticed that there were tons of media people and news sources just barging people with questions, just shoving a camera in people's faces. I just want to say that if there are journalists out there who are listening to this, just have compassion for these people. Just know that having a camera in front of someone's face who is grieving a loved one — it's just not the right thing to do. It's not the right time or place to do that at a funeral. As journalists, yes, we are supposed to report what's going on in our community. But we should also give and respect people's space and privacy.
Nikhita: It's just important to remember that for some of us, it's not just a story. It's our lives. Our lives have been completely changed by this in a matter of a few hours. We're not used to having all this media in Parkland and to have all this attention directed toward Douglas. To take advantage of students' comments at a time like this is completely unacceptable and unethical, and journalists should take this into account when they're doing interviews and taking quotes from kids.
Christy: We're using the Eagle Eye right now to show what the students are really feeling and what the students are saying.
Is the Eagle Eye planning more follow-up stories?
Nikhita: Yes, definitely. We are actually planning to meet with our adviser to discuss future steps. For right now, I have been contacting other student press programs across the country to get pictures of all the different walkouts and support events going on.
Christy: The Eagle Eye is planning on making a special issue just for the incident and to honor the 17 victims and their families. We want to have an issue 100 percent dedicated to them, so we actually have a GoFundMe page to raise money for such an issue, since we're a self-funded school publication that gets money from advertisements — something we don't want in the special issue.
As for online, we are trying to cover events locally regarding the tragedy as they come.