What it’s like for student journalists to cover a shooting at their own school

University of North Carolina Charlotte senior Alexandria Sands was in her last class before graduation when she learned that a shooting had erupted on campus Tuesday afternoon.

The news popped up in a GroupMe message for editors of the student-run newspaper she belonged to.

Apparently there have been shots fired on campus.

Then the official campus alert hit everyone’s phones, Sands said. Their instructor locked the classroom door. Students took cover in the corner of the room as the campus went into lockdown.

Sands, the Niner Times’ community editor, instinctively pulled open her laptop. In an instant, she had to decide if she should tweet from the newspaper’s account.

“Yes, I do. I have to,” she said.

“It was a way to make sure [my] fellow students are safe and also a way to help clear the rumors so people don’t panic more.”

A sadly familiar rite of passage in journalism is trickling down to campus newspapers with increasing frequency. Student journalists are acting as chroniclers and survivors of mass shootings — something no journalism class prepares them for.

“It has not been easy for us to report on something that is happening to our own school and our friends, classmates and ourselves, but this staff is handling it all with such grace and determination,” Niner Times editor-in-chief Jeffrey Kopp said.

CNN spoke with members of four student newspapers, including the Niner Times, about what it’s like to cover a school shooting. These are their stories.

‘It was kind of a distraction’

Earlier Tuesday, the Niner Times staff had put out what they thought would be their last edition.

Sands even tweeted a picture of herself holding the paper, joking that she was now a “retired college newspaper editor.”

As she sat on the floor of her dark classroom, someone replied to her tweet:

I have a feeling you’re not actually going to be able to pass the baton today. Godspeed.

Sands scrolled through Twitter for confirmed information from law enforcement to share and add to a digital article.

Meanwhile, editors fanned out across campus, feeding her videos and images to share on social media, including a video of the suspect being taken into custody.

“The fact that I was looking at my computer screen the whole time almost took me out of the moment and made me less fearful,” she said.

“It was kind of a distraction.”

So began the cycle of press conferences, witness interviews and vigils. The editors used GroupMe to discuss assignments. As they spent long hours in the newsroom, other college newspapers sent them food to keep them going.

They thought they had put out their last newspaper on Tuesday. Now, the Niner Times will publish one more next week to detail the events of the shooting and pay tribute to the victims.

Within the tragic circumstances, Sands said she found a renewed commitment to journalism.

“I felt like a journalist,” she said. “It just reaffirmed my passion for journalism and how much I’m meant to do this.”

‘This is our story to tell’

Hannah Kapoor and the Eagle Eye staff got the text message from their newspaper adviser, Melissa Falkowski, a couple of days after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 members of the school community dead.

Falkowski wanted to meet with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student journalists and see how they were doing

At the Barnes and Noble in Coral Springs, she told them that journalists from around the world would be telling their story, Kapoor said.

She urged them to take control of the narrative.

“Yes, we are kids and we are students, but we’re also student journalists and this is our story to tell,” said Kapoor, Eagle Eye’s co-editor-in-chief.

After the shooting, the Eagle Eye reported on vigils, funerals and fundraisers. Because the school was a crime scene, they worked remotely, filing stories to editors who posted them online.

For their first print edition after the shooting, they published tributes to each of the 17 victims, each one reported and written by a student who knew the victim.

The paper submitted the edition to the Pulitzer Prizes. They did not win, but the award’s administrator praised their work in a speech kicking off the Pulitzer ceremony.

“These budding journalists remind us of the media’s unwavering commitment to bearing witness, even in the most wrenching of circumstances, in service to a nation whose very existence depends on a free and dedicated press,” Dana Canedy said.

“There is hope in their example.”

‘Being the first doesn’t mean anything if you’re giving out wrong information’

Parkland students were among the first to respond on social media to a shooting at Central Michigan University on March 2, 2018.

Their reactions were the subject of one of several stories that CMU’s student newspaper published about the shooting.

Unsurprisingly, social media was key to Central Michigan Life’s coverage for gathering and sharing information, said Jordyn Hermani, managing editor at the time.

She was supposed to be on the road to New Orleans that day for spring break. Instead, Hermani woke up to a phone call about shots fired on campus.

She contacted her boyfriend and parents to let them know she was safe. Then, she told them she was going to temporarily block them, “like I’m shutting down Jordyn the human and entering into news Jordyn mode,” she said.

Staffing was short because of spring break. When they found out the shooter, a student, had fled to downtown Mount Pleasant, Hermani sent reporters to the scene and called the rest to the campus newsroom.

She warned those in the field to stay within eyesight of police, “because yes you are a journalist and you should be treated as such, but there comes a line between getting the story and being foolish,” she said.

In the newsroom, staffers monitored social media and reached out to students on lockdown. As rumors and misinformation spread, Hermani responded to tweets and Facebook comments to set the record straight.

In the field, reporters trailed police and live-streamed official press conferences, then turned the cameras on themselves to provide recaps and take questions. Others were on standby to replenish their phone batteries.

It was clear they were not just reporting for students, but for their parents and the entire community, she said.

As night fell, Hermani and her editor decided to sleep in shifts. Hermani was asleep for barely an hour when she got the call that the suspect had been caught.

CM Life shared the update in a pinned tweet letting readers know they would have a full story in the morning.

After the main story was out, along with the victims’ obituaries, students’ reaction and the Parkland story, Hermani left town for spring break. When she returned, she helped those who stayed during spring break put the print edition to bed with updated stories.

“That day really drove home the amount of good you can do when you’re making sure you’re being thorough and not just first,” she said.

“It’s really easy to get caught up in the moment, but being the first doesn’t mean anything if you’re giving out wrong information.”

‘Everyone was a victim’

The students in Melinda Benton’s communications class did not cover in real time the October 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon that left nine people dead.

The Mainstream does not cover breaking news, she said, and most of her students are not likely to become journalists. Most take her class so they can get jobs in public relations or to improve their writing.

Besides, the shooting left the rural, impoverished community utterly devastated, she said.

“Everyone was a victim.”

Even if the students had wanted to report the shooting immediately, the school was closed for a week after the shooting, and resources to work remotely did not exist. Many homes in the community did not have internet at the time.

Benton said she decided to wait until school resumed to ask students how they wanted to cover the shooting.

What they wanted, she said, was to help the community heal. They did not want to write about the shooter and they did not want to write about the victims, she said.

“They couldn’t,” she said. “And I had to respect that.”

Instead, they wrote about a student who carried an injured friend to safety, how to get counseling benefits and what to expect emotionally.

At times, it pained Benton as a journalist to ignore the essential news stories. She lost sleep and worried that she was doing wrong by the students.

So she asked for help.

Two journalism professors from the University of Oregon visited the campus to coach her and the students.

When she shared her fears that they were in over their heads, they laughed and told her they feel that way all the time, she said.

It was a relief, she said. And it reminded her why it was necessary to cover shootings in a way that felt right to her community.

“If you don’t find a way to tell stories in a new way then we will come to accept a cultural phenomenon that is not only deadly, it is dehumanizing.”