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Parkland Student-Journalists Reflect on Surviving and Covering a Mass Shooting

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Student journalists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have been walking a fine line between covering the horrific story of the shooting that unfolded at their school and reacting as survivors who were themselves traumatized.

"I had to be there for my friends," Kevin Trejos, an 18-year-old senior, said of the moments after a gunman killed 17 students and adults and wounded others on Feb. 14. "I also had to be there as a photographer [for the school newspaper]. In a way, it helped me escape the reality of it."

Trejos and four of his colleagues from The Eagle Eye, the student paper at Stoneman Douglas, spoke at a livestreamed panel discussion Friday at the Newseum in Washington, where on Saturday they will join some 200 other students from their high school—not to mention an estimated 500,000 other participants—in the March for Our Lives. The march was organized by Stoneman Douglas High students, with some help from others, to call for measures to protect children from gun violence.

Emma Dowd, a senior and the co-editor-in-chief of the newspaper, spent hours locked in the photo closet as the shooting unfolded. She said she had difficulty trying to act as a journalist in the immediate hours and days after the campus was secured.

"I didn't feel I was emotionally able to even go back in the school to retrieve a camera," Dowd said. "I was an emotional hot mess."

But the student journalists under the guidance of teacher and newspaper adviser Melissa Falkowski have received international praise for their work in the weeks after the mass shooting. The newspaper published its first online account of the events within days, in a story by Nikhita Nookala and Christy Ma, who were also on the panel at the Newseum.

Ma, a senior, also hid in a school closet during the shooting incident, and she recalled talking with another student newspaper staffer about having to cover the incident.

"We were in the middle of our third-quarter issue," Ma said, when someone declared, "OK guys, we have to trash the whole issue." 

Nookala recalled that at the bottom of The Eagle Eye's first account, she and Ma had to list all the victims.

"I found that really hard to write, because I had to write 'freshman' so many times," said Nookala, a senior.

The Eagle Eye launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for an ad-free print edition that was a tribute to the victims. And The Eagle Eye has partnered with Guardian US, the American edition of the British newspaper The Guardian, to cover the March for Our Lives. 

Students are guest editing Guardian US coverage of the march, and the Guardian helped pay for 11 student Stoneman Douglas journalists travel to Washington. Guardian US also published a "manifesto" by the editorial staff of The Eagle Eye that includes policy demands that include banning semiautomatic weapons that fire high-velocity rounds, establishing a database of gun sales and universal background checks, and changing privacy laws to allow mental health providers to communicate with law enforcement.

Rebecca Schneid, the other co-editor-in-chief of The Eagle Eye and the fifth member of the panel, said that while the newspaper staff agreed on the positions taken in the manifesto, the paper has strived to include voices in news stories that may take a different view on gun control or other issues.

"In our paper, we attempt to remain as nonpartisan as possible," said Schneid, a junior. "We love to publish opinions that are different from our own."

Margaret Brennan of CBS News, who moderated the hourlong panel discussion, asked the students whether they saw themselves more as participants in the March for Our Lives or as journalists covering it.

"I sometimes have to separate myself as a survivor and a journalist," said Schneid.

Trejos said he was having difficulty thinking of the event as "a march that ends up in the history books. For me, this is a march my friends started. That's where I am right now. We'll see after tomorrow."

The students said their experience has convinced them of the power of journalism to elevate the discussion around issues such as gun control.

Nookala said she had joined the newspaper class "because it was one other thing I wanted to try" and the experience covering the mass shooting has "given me a passion for the profession."

Schneid said she was debating a career in either medicine or journalism and this experience may have tipped the balance toward the latter.

"For journalism, I've seen the impact it has had on people's lives," she said. "It's an amazing and noble profession if done right."

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