Content warning: This story discusses gun violence and trauma.
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According to a report from the Violence Project and Best Colleges from this past spring, “at least 98 people have been killed in 12 mass shootings at U.S. colleges since 1966.” As of February, 75% of those shootings happened in the last 16 years.
On Aug. 28, a professor was fatally shot at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Three weeks later, UNC students were under lockdown once again due to another threat of “an armed or dangerous person” on campus.
On Feb. 13, three Michigan State University students were killed and five were injured on campus after a gunman opened fire in a classroom.
On Nov. 14, 2022, three University of Virginia football players were killed and two other students were injured after a shooter opened fire on campus.
As higher education grapples with an influx of campus gun violence, student journalists are often the reporters closest to the stories. The Herald spoke with student journalists from UNC, MSU and UVA about their experiences covering gun violence as both reporters and people.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: The Daily Tar Heel
Maddie Policastro, a sophomore at UNC, is a senior writer for The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper. When Policastro first heard about a shooting on campus, they went into lockdown for the night with a few friends. The next day, they snapped into reporting mode.
Policastro remembered thinking: “As a journalist, this is something I’m going to experience a lot of. Things where I’m personally affected but have to be able to offer that kind of coverage and those perspectives, even when I’m still coping and dealing with it.”
Student journalists, they said, “have a very unique obligation to report,” especially given their ability to “connect on such a deep level with the student body.”
Policastro paused before explaining that “we are the only people that fully understand what happened and what we all went through because we were living in it.”
For Policastro, reconciling the tension between being a student and being a journalist in times of tragedy on campus is a difficult but necessary task.
Three weeks after the initial shooting at UNC, the school went under lockdown again due to reports of a “dangerous” individual who reportedly pulled a gun on a cashier at a campus bagel shop.
What Policastro remembered most about the second threat was the “fear and disbelief that it was happening again.”
While Policastro has not reported on the second incident, they are planning future coverage exploring the impact of both experiences on students. “As a journalist, I’m definitely still thinking about it,” they said. “Especially living through another lockdown incident like this one and bringing up that same trauma.”
Policastro, who was in a dining hall when the lockdown was announced, recalled watching students run away from windows — “we didn’t know where the person was,” they said.
While Policastro was distressed at the scene around them, they noted that their firsthand exposure to the environment was valuable for their understanding of the scene as a reporter.
Although Policastro doesn’t “think this is something (they’re) ever going to move past,” they explained how their “reporting was really integral to (their) healing process at the time.”
“One of the main reasons I even became a reporter in the first place is because I think it’s really important that other people have an opportunity and a platform to share their experiences and stories with the world,” they said. “So being able to be that person for other people, that person that somebody can talk to and know that their story is going to get out there in a very delicate and personal matter is really important to me.”
Policastro’s words of advice to any student journalist who may find themselves in the position of reporting on gun violence on their campus are “to realize that you are also students and that you also need to heal.”
“But also recognize that you have a responsibility,” they said. “One that is very important.”
Michigan State University: The State News
SaMya Overall was the editor-in-chief of Michigan State’s newspaper, The State News, at the time of the February shooting. Overall was in her apartment when she suddenly noticed a swarm of notifications flooding her laptop’s home screen. At first, Overall wasn’t quite sure what the situation was, aside from an elevated police presence on campus.
“I kind of snapped into more editor-in-chief mode than I did to person mode,” she said. “I was like, ‘Okay, this is breaking news.’ I told my roommate, ‘I’ll see you later’ and started driving toward campus in the dark.”
As she got closer, Overall realized that barricades around the north part of MSU’s campus were blocking her from driving into the scene, so she parked her car three blocks away from the State News office and walked into the newsroom to start reporting.
“For the whole first night and most of the days afterward, I was almost exclusively reporting,” she said. “Until the managing editor and I met with our advisor at the time and discussed a kind of rescue plan for our reporters and editors — because we had been working on stuff from around the clock from the night of the shooting — I didn’t really process anything.”
Overall coped through leadership and reporting, despite the “shock to (her) foundation of safety at MSU.”
“There were a lot of things that I was avoiding,” she recalled. “Then obviously I was more busy than ever so I was able to … bury myself in State News work” — which simultaneously helped her cope while preventing her from fully processing her feelings, she said.
The week after the shooting, Overall decided The State News would focus its coverage on how the shooting impacted MSU students.
“We really wanted to find every angle of how students dealt with that night,” Overall said, noting that students were locked down everywhere from dorm rooms to buses. “We set up a database on our website … to allow the community to submit their own stories recounting what happened, and we’d publish them basically verbatim.”
In the following weeks, Overall felt The State News had the responsibility to “restore the community” and work to answer community members’ questions about the lockdown.
While national news outlets covered the basics of the incident, student news organizations got into the “day-to-day” as well as “the different stories, like students at MSU who (had) been in previous shootings,” Overall said.
She described leading the paper’s more than 70 staff members as the sort of situation where “you just have to assume that you know what you’re doing” — later Overall wrote a column in The State News titled “There’s no book on how to be editor-in-chief during a mass shooting.”
“It’s something that student journalists should never have to muddle through,” she said. “And now unfortunately, more and more student journalists and student newspapers are having to think about what happens when we have to cover something like this.”
Overall hopes student journalists will hold onto the importance of self-lenience and grace in these situations. “You don’t have to have all of the answers,” she added. “No one does.”
University of Virginia: The Cavalier Daily
Eva Surovell was wrapping up her term as the editor-in-chief of the University of Virginia’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, at the time of the Nov. 14 shooting. Surovell remembers being awake for 72 hours after the shooting happened. National outlets including The New York Times, The Associated Press and The Washington Post called Surovell’s cell phone, one after the other — all between 4 and 5 a.m.
Surovell was out to dinner with friends when she heard the news of a shooting. After previously reporting on a situation with an armed individual on campus, Surovell’s instinct drew her to the scene. She threw on a jacket and glanced at her phone. Another security text lit up her screen: Active shooter. “RUN. HIDE. FIGHT.”
“It was dead quiet outside as I walked to the bottom of the hill. On my way, I run into a police officer, and he’s like, ‘You need to turn around now,’” she said. Surovell “quickly disassociated,” feeling as though she were operating on auto-pilot.
She met up with a friend and joined fellow students who had barricaded themselves in a classroom. Surovell then monitored police scanners, Twitter and her email while frantically checking in with local journalists.
“I went into a closet in this room and sat there listening to those police scanners for probably like an hour and a half,” she said. “At some point during all this, I texted my mom. I was like, ‘Mom, there’s a shooting going on. I’m working on paper stuff. I love you and I’m fine.’”
Later, Surovell staked out the scene with other local outlets. “As I’m doing all of this, there’s helicopters circling looking for the guy and police sirens going off nonstop,” she said. “So I wrote a note to our readers (in the newsletter) that was to the effect of, ‘I don’t really know what’s going on. I’m really upset. All I can tell you is that you should tell the people around you that you love them.’”
Surovell remembered receiving an email from a member of The Cavalier Daily’s nonprofit board as the moment when she “lost it.”
“They had emailed me a guide for how to report on school shootings from the Virginia Tech student newspaper,” she said. “I think that was the first moment where I was like, this is insane.”
“No one ever prepares you for this,” Surovell added.
She explained that, in particular, her positionality as a white woman made reporting on the deaths of three Black students difficult to navigate. “I was so young to be in charge of more than 500 people … and I was not prepared to do what was asked of me.”
After consulting with The Cavalier Daily’s previous editor-in-chief, Surovell gave everyone in the newsroom a choice: Do you still want to report?
“I was like, ‘You don’t need to write if you don’t want to. If you do want to write, participate in whatever capacity you feel comfortable,’” she said.
For Surovell herself, much of the reporting process felt like “an out-of-body experience,” a weight she felt especially at a vigil held for the victims the day after the shooting.
“That was the first time when I really, really broke down. I don’t think I stopped crying for several hours,” she said. Trying to stay strong for the paper’s staff, Surovell hadn’t allowed herself to cry up until that moment.
Surovell also strived to avoid a dynamic where the paper was “(preying) on students.” She wrote a statement “saying that we won’t be seeking out interviews. If you are a student and wish to share your story with us, please reach out.”
Leading The Cavalier Daily’s newsroom throughout the shooting and aftermath taught Surovell that “it’s okay to lead with your heart … and that doesn’t make me any less of a journalist.”
“I think what everyone forgets, especially the national media outlets and politicians and lawmakers, is that when the camera crews leave and the attention goes away,” she said, “the student journalists and other community leaders are the ones who have to pick up the pieces.”
Sofia Barnett is a University News editor overseeing the faculty and higher education beat. She is a junior from Texas studying history and English nonfiction and enjoys freelancing in her free time.