David Hogg, the 17-year-old news director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s TV station, crouches on the floor of a darkened classroom. He grabs his phone, flips on the video camera and starts asking questions. He speaks just above a whisper, because somewhere on campus – nobody knows where – a gunman with an assault rifle is murdering children and their teachers.
Last week’s mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., was one of the deadliest in U.S. history. Seventeen people died. Fourteen were students.
We once believed the best reporting removed the storyteller from the story. This time, the most compelling coverage came from inside the building. From kids.
Trapped in a hot, crowded room, Hogg demonstrates remarkable journalistic presence of mind. He doesn’t ask the obvious question: “Are you scared?” He doesn’t ask the sensational question: “What do you want to say if we don’t make it?” He asks the bigger question: “What, in this moment, do you want the world to know about gun violence?”
The first girl glances around nervously, poised but shaking. “If you looked around this closet and you saw everyone hiding together, you would know that this shouldn’t be happening,” she whispers. Gun access is too easy, far too easy. Her hands tremble and she chews her fingernails without realizing she’s doing it. She apologizes, deeming her words not as well-articulated as they’d been in her head. As a journalist, Hogg shows us the miracle – that she could speak at all.
He goes audio-only for the next segment, an incredibly mature move. Clearly, this kid has instincts. He speaks with a girl who admits a lifelong fascination with firearms and mentions that she’d once marched for gun rights. Hogg finds her at the precise moment her mind is being changed. “This experience is so traumatizing,” she says. “Now I can’t even fathom the idea of a gun in my house.”
As someone in the background shushes the students, she goes on. “I even texted my sisters, ‘Shooting at my school. I am safe.’ They both responded, ‘OMG. LOL. You’re funny.’ Now that’s a problem in society, and it’s a bigger problem in America, and I believe it needs to be fixed.”
Emerging later, Hogg stayed on-site until the early hours of the following day. He appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC. He described running from the gunman. “It was almost like there was a shark coming along and we were a school of fish.”
But then he looked straight into the camera and demanded a meaningful response. “Ideas are great. Ideas are wonderful and they help you get re-elected and everything, but what’s more important is actual action… Please, this is the 18th [shooting] this year. That’s unacceptable.”
Lots of students have spoken out in the days after the shooting, and they’ve carried themselves astoundingly well. That Hogg could do so immediately, with such poise and such clarity, tells me he’s a born journalist.
The evening of the shooting, his words hit exactly the right note. “The fact is there are 17 families that now have empty rooms. These are people’s kids. They’ve poured all the love, everything they could ever get, into these kids. And it’s all been taken by one piece of metal and bled out onto the floor.”
Contrast this with local news coverage and its hand-wringing and repetition and over-dramatic delivery. Within about 24 hours, the local ABC affiliate was already broadcasting the expected “hearsay” interviews with students who happened to be loitering around the scene. One young man, speaking about accused gunman Nikolas Cruz: “I heard he was a bad person. I’m not sure, I heard he sold knives and stuff.” Then a girl: “He was someone you could tell something was off with him.”
The day after the shooting, another girl created tribute posters and brought them to school to add to the makeshift memorials. She was nearly suffocated by a swarm of cameras and reporters. That grieving child held the two pieces of white cardboard in front of her like a pair of shields, and she sobbed.
The same day, a local television reporter described the armament Cruz carried, including smoke bombs. Clearly looking for something more to add after a 24-hour news cycle, he painted a gruesome picture of how Cruz might have used a smokescreen to make the rampage even more extensive.
Who needs that kind of speculation? Wasn’t the actual carnage enough?
I’ve read much of the print coverage from our three major South Florida newspapers (the Sun-Sentinel in nearby Fort Lauderdale, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post). It was workmanlike, exactly what you’d expect. Exactly what we’ve all come to expect, because we’ve been there before and we’ve read those front pages too many times already.
That brings me to the final element – the student videos. Columbine happened in 1999, eight years before the iPhone. At Sandy Hook Elementary, the children were too young to have phones. But not in Parkland, where phones were out and on.
We see teenagers splayed on the floor, shrieking, cursing, whimpering. Massed together in darkened closets, or running down a hallway. A mostly empty auditorium, with the sound of gunfire muffled and far away. A classroom, shots just outside the door, heart-stoppingly loud and close. A SWAT team entering a classroom, where students sit with arms raised. One pair of hands shakes violently.
The kids who shot these videos, these citizen journalists, took a lot of heat in the hours following the attack. How could they film their classmates’ terror? Why not get off Snapchat and put your phone down and keep yourself safe? Why not call 911 instead of taking pictures?
Dozens of students did call 911. So many, in fact, that they were finally told to stop. Many kids did put their phones down, or they texted their parents: “If I don’t make it, I love you.” Some watched the event unfold on their news feeds. On some levels, I get it. Information, even frightening information, is better than no information at all.
By 8 a.m. the next day, a half-dozen explicit videos, shared by friends of friends of friends, had traveled from Stoneman Douglas to my 15-year-old’s high school 45 miles away. I asked him if he would have been one of the ones filming, and he thought not. But he understood it. “It’s instinct,” he told me. “In high school now, everything gets documented.”
Several days later, we sat together and reviewed a New York Times sidebar headlined, “What to Do When There’s an Active Shooter.” That he engaged so completely and so somberly was, I think, a direct result of having seen it for himself.
I won’t condemn or defend the students who kept their cameras out during the ordeal. As the parent of a high school freshman, I understand that whipping out the phone and flicking on the camera has become second nature – for some of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, an instinct even more powerful than self-preservation.
But here’s a truth that makes me feel profoundly uncomfortable: Nothing any newspaper printed, nothing any professional news crew shot, had as powerful an impact as a high school kid’s cellphone video.
The days since the Parkland shooting have given professional journalists a chance to do solid work. They’ve given us the profiles of the victims. They’ve followed Cruz to jail, and they’ve unearthed the disturbing details of how it happened. In other words, the press has done its job, better in the days that followed than in the hours that followed. No surprise there.
But what the mainstream media have done best is to give voice to the young survivors who are now leading the national debate.
TIME magazine wrote that David Hogg started filming when the shooting started and hasn’t stopped yet. “While I was in there, I thought, ‘What impact have I had? What will my story be if I die here?’” Hogg told TIME. “And the only thing I could think of was, pull out my camera and try telling others. As a student journalist, as an aspiring journalist, that’s all I could think: Get other people’s stories on tape. If we all die, the camera survives, and that’s how we get the message out there, about how we want change to be brought about.”
CNN has given a platform to Stoneman Douglas junior Cameron Kasky, who has written and spoken eloquently: “My message for the people in office is: you’re either with us or against us. We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around.”
The New York Times published an op-ed piece written by 15-year-old freshman Christine Yared. In cruel irony, her parents relocated from their native Lebanon so she “would never have to experience the violence and loss they did… My parents chose Parkland to settle in because of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s stellar reputation, and because we thought that it was a safe place to live. But that isn’t true anymore. The promise of safety and security failed us.”
We’ve long since passed the point where we presume news-gatherers are objective. These high school kids? These kids will never be objective about gun violence again. But they’re telling their stories with brutal honesty and well-directed passion. If subjective journalism is where we’re ultimately and inexorably headed, they’re out in front of us, doing it right.
Jodi (Davis) MacNeal is a freelance writer/editor and a former journalist at the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post. She continues to reside in South Florida.
NYT active shooter link: