When Madison Hahamy’s editor assigned her to write a profile of a 16-year-old shooting victim named David A. Thomas, she was stumped for almost a year. Her subject presented many obstacles to investigation: He had a common name, lived in a populous area, and the police investigation into his murder was stalled. When the Chicago Sun Times reported Thomas’s death in May 2018, it noted only that he had been walking down the street in the city’s Lawndale neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon when someone walked up and shot him in the face. The item was accompanied by a photo of the empty street.
When Hahamy got the police report on Thomas’s killing through a Freedom of Information Act request several months later, Thomas’s name was listed as “David Harrison.” A high school she found listed as his had no record of Thomas as a student. Hahamy searched for other local schools with similar acronyms, and was finally able to match a rendering of a hallway on one school’s website with the background of a post about a “David A. Thomas” on gunmemorial.org, a site commemorating victims of gun violence. She cold-messaged students on Facebook until she found Thomas’s friends, and was able to interview one of them by phone.
Gradually, David A. Thomas came to life. He loved basketball. He and his best friend had started their own clothing line. Because Hahamy had been searching for Thomas for so long, every new detail felt revelatory. “Sweatpants was their main thing,” she told me as she described Thomas’s fledgling company. “He was a really creative person.”
The digging Hahamy did—the process of turning a cipher into a human being—will be familiar to any investigative journalist tasked with covering the impact of America’s gun violence epidemic. The difference is that Hahamy was only 17 years old herself when she started her profile of Thomas in the fall of 2018, while working on her college applications.
Hahamy’s article was part of an unprecedented nationwide student journalism project called Since Parkland. The initiative was launched nearly two years ago by the nonprofit gun violence news outlet The Trace in collaboration with The Miami Herald and the McClatchy newspaper group; under their auspices, teenagers have researched and written pieces on the lives of each of the 1,200 children shot to death in the United States in the year since the Parkland mass shooting in Florida in February 2018. In addition to Thomas, Hahamy wrote about a pair of curly-haired 10-year-old twins named Addison and Mason Sanders, who had been nicknamed “The Twinkies”; Lohki Bloom, a two-year-old who relished truck rides; and Kianna Rowe, an 18-year-old shooting guard with plans to play basketball in college. In total, 214 student journalists participated in the project.
Each profile is composed using simple details—a favorite color or nickname—and follows a straightforward formula: three paragraphs of less than 100 words total, with the subject’s death described in the profile’s final lines. The pieces make for absorbing reading, in large part because other children—the watchful student reporters—hover over every sentence. For the victims’ family and friends, these stories suggest, there is some redemption in being seen; for everyone else, in making the effort to see.
Most of the profiles were released in February, on Parkland’s one-year anniversary. Recently, The Trace published a second round of stories: 85 profiles that were too difficult to report during the project’s original timeline, either because the child had died too close to the end date to be reported in time or because there had been too little public information available about his or her life to finish a profile. This past summer, the project’s advisers selected 10 students from around the country to complete the unfinished pieces. Hahamy was one of these students.
Another was Sarah Emily Baum, who, like other young journalists working on the project, pointed to Parkland as a defining moment in her life. “Before the Parkland shooting happened, I’m not sure [gun violence] was one of the top five issues on my radar,” she said. Parkland had made her “more passionate” about preventing gun violence, said Janea Wilson, another student on the project.
For some of these teens, Parkland was not an isolated incident. When Wilson was in sixth grade, a friend of hers was shot and killed; she said she remembered watching the news reports and seeing how “a person’s life can kind of be washed away.” Hope Kahn, who is 18, told me she oversaw a spread in her high school paper dedicated to a teacher who was murdered at the beginning of Kahn’s junior year.
However, Christian Lewis, now 20 years old, had mainly written about sports before. “This opened my eyes to a whole other world to journalism,” he told me.
The Trace trained all 214 students to do their research using information from the Gun Violence Archive, an incomparable research tool for information on shootings. Without a resource like the GVA, Since Parkland probably would have been impossible: There is no other national database that tracks incidents of gun violence in near-real time. GVA is run by a retired systems analyst in Kentucky named Mark Bryant, who employs a staff of 22 people. Combing through more than 6,500 information sources, they publish daily verified reports of shootings and can categorize them using up to 120 different variables, including tagging them as hate crimes, domestic violence, police action, or accidental use. (In comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes its report on shooting deaths with a lag—2018’s report is still not public—and bases its figures on extrapolated data.)
The advisers overseeing Since Parkland—Akoto Ofori-Atta, The Trace’s managing editor, and Katina Paron, a longtime journalism educator—sent each student three GVA reports at a time, so as not to overwhelm them. Still, the GVA only links to published news sources, so the students still had their work cut out for them. “At first, when you look at 11 obituaries, and you say, I know that another reporter has tried to write this, or when I kept typing this kid’s name into Google, nothing came up, it’s kind of like, where do I even start?” a reporter named Callie McQuilkin told me.
Baum, now 19, said she cold-contacted students who had attended the same school as her subjects by blanketing their Facebook inboxes with messages that said, “Hey, are you OK? Are you able to talk to me about this?” It’s the same strategy she now deploys as a freelancer covering mass shootings for Teen Vogue.
The first pieces Lewis wrote for Since Parkland were fairly straightforward from a research perspective. A quick Google search yielded a lengthy obituary or a GoFundMe campaign page with a robust comment wall. To write his remaining profiles, however, he said he needed to “sit down and plan out how I want to approach each one.” Victims who had never been publicly identified were hardest; their write-ups required some students to make public records requests. Lewis searched for online fragments that would yield clues about a child’s life. “It’s usually surfing and looking for one tweet, one Facebook post, looking into mutual friends and finding the one post,” he said.
One hundred words may be brief, but each profile relied on unearthing a good deal of detail, which grieving families were sometimes reluctant or unable to provide. Even when they memorialized their children online, parents didn’t always write much about the children themselves. “You see a lot of things like, ‘She was my little ray of sunshine’—stuff like that,” Lewis said.
Kahn told me she had expected to be assigned pieces about children “involved in someone else’s gunfire,” so she was surprised at how many of her subjects had died by accidentally shooting themselves. (The Trace decided to exclude suicides in its reporting, as well as police-involved shootings and incidents in which the child who died had also killed someone else.) Many of those accidental shootings were by very young children, whose brief lives could be especially difficult to render. “It’s kind of hard to write about somebody if they’re five,” Lewis explained. “They have no personal outlet.” To write about babies, the students had to rely solely on information from their families, or photographs.
This summer, many of the students were assigned to write about children who appeared to have essentially disappeared from public view. GVA’s entries led to tiny items in local papers; there were no memorials, no social media accounts, no hashtags. Even Paron, the project supervisor, was surprised at how hard some of the profiles were proving to be to complete. “It was like, wow, this is really, really hard to find somebody,” she said. Students were calling funeral homes and coroner’s offices to try to get family contacts, reaching out to precincts for police reports, filing FOIA requests for death certificates, and posting furiously in local Facebook groups. As a last resort, The Trace sometimes assigned one of its own reporters as a mentor to help look for family or legal records using Lexis Nexis or Westlaw.
Many of these difficult profiles were for teenage boys of color, especially those from areas where gun violence is common and treated as unremarkable. Hahamy recalled being told by a local Chicago reporter, “We have to write hundreds of these stories.... You just don’t spend time on it.”
When I mentioned this conversation to Ofori-Atta, she said the severe cutbacks at many local news outlets weren’t the full story. “It’s about who we see as victims,” she said. “Most of the victims in the project, as most victims of gun violence are, are young black and brown men. If we don’t see those victims as worthy of coverage, they just won’t get it.” News items about teenage boys of color who had been gunned down, for example, almost never read as though the victims were children.
Baum said some parents of children of color she spoke with assumed that a member of the media, especially a white one, would write their children off. Such a response is “a sane and normal reaction to the current media landscape and the way that a lot of journalists cover this,” she pointed out. Parents insisted to Baum over and over, as though she might not believe it, that their child hadn’t deserved to die. “I just kept having to say, ‘I know,’” she said. “‘I believe you.’”
If students were able to connect directly with a victim’s friend or family member, The Trace provided a guide for initiating a difficult conversation about a dead loved one, but the task inevitably contained emotional swerves that were hard to anticipate. Some families were suspicious. Others got emotional at unexpected times. Hahamy told me the calls made her “really nervous.” She sat with her dog while she conducted the interviews so she would have something comforting to look at. “It never really got any easier,” she said.
Students dealt with the reporting challenges in different ways, Paron told me. Some wore a particular sweater, like a security blanket, while working on their profiles. Others only worked at the school library, or never before bed. The Trace held wellness workshops to help the teenagers process their feelings. Paron talked to them about “doing the transfer,” which is what she called her own tendency to snap at her family unprovoked when working on a difficult story. “We’re just sharing a space as journalists who are all working on these issues,” she told me. At the same time, she also thought of teenagers as “softer, in a way,” she said. “They absorb a lot. They take this very personally.”
To her relief, Hahamy usually found that families were so happy to hear from her that she didn’t need to explain herself too much or to give them a great deal of prompting to lead into the conversation. “It really was just me being there and being someone listening,” she said. Many families were waiting for news from police investigations that had inexplicably stalled. Some had children who had been dead for months and had never had a call from anyone in the media.
When talking to families, students worried about balancing objectivity with sympathy. Wilson said she tried to stay neutral during conversations with victims’ families, picturing herself as “a blank slate that they could paint a picture on.” She tended to be “always very polite to people and always recognize their loss instead of rushing past it.” But when she found herself speaking with a 15-year-old, she intuitively began posing questions “in a more jokey way,” she said, “just to get him laughing.” Wilson has a 15-year-old brother, so she pretended she was talking to him.
Nearly every profile subject had been anticipating an important life milestone or had just soared passed one. Childhood is full of accomplishments, and during their research, the reporters invariably uncovered imminent graduations or big birthdays. The students felt the significance of these markers acutely, since they, too, were experiencing their own graduation ceremonies or first after-school jobs. Hahamy said she would often think to herself that the children she wrote about “should be living the life that I’m living right now.”
A reporter named Sophia McDermott-Hughes told me that, after messaging family members, she questioned whether she was “doing the right thing”—whether she was actually helping victims’ families by publishing these intimate details of the victims’ lives. Paron said students became obsessed with the “moral question” surrounding “the power [they had] to tell who this person was.” When Hahamy and I spoke, she had recently talked at length with the sister of another hard-to-find victim, a 17-year-old from Philadelphia named Lamir Harrison. During the call, Hahamy filled two single-spaced pages with notes about his life, which led to a new problem: condensing the life of someone she now almost felt she knew. “I mean, it’s impossible,” she said.
By fall, the students were close to completing their profiles. A set of assignments that had started out somewhat rote, McDermott-Hughes admitted—“Oh, maybe this will take me a couple of weeks,” she thought—had shed any residual sense of homework duty. “There was just this accumulation of doggedness,” she said. The students had become genuinely disgusted with the way existing media covered the deaths of these children in cursory reports full of misspelled names or incorrectly reported birthdays. They realized that the only thing standing between the victims and a better piece of writing was time. “You’re like, no,” McDermott-Hughes said. “I’m going to sit down for several hours, and I’m gonna find everything out, and I’m going to write it, and I’m going to write it now, and then I’m going to do the next one.”
“When I think about my last year, I kind of think about it in terms of the timeline of this project more so than I do applying to college,” Hahamy said. After locating Thomas’s friends, she was so energized that she started trawling the Since Parkland master spreadsheet for profiles that hadn’t been assigned to her. Using a local Facebook group called Metro DETROIT Crime and Homicide, where residents posted about recent crimes and arrests, Hahamy was able to help ID another victim that even one of The Trace’s project mentors hadn’t been able to find. And Kahn told me her friends now “joke about how I can stalk anyone on any social media account, because of how easily I can find anything.”
On the day The Trace published the first profiles, Hahamy had excused herself from her math class and refreshed the browser on her phone until the archive loaded. Seeing the published pieces “hit a lot harder” than she expected. “Which is good,” she added. “It really should hit really hard.” Lewis told me he tried not to look back at the Since Parkland website. “I guess it gets a little sad,” he told me.
The students submitted their last remaining profiles for the final project deadline in November. But when I last talked with McDermott-Hughes, she was still Googling leads on a teenager named Dwight Manning, hoping someone would post something new about him. She had already finished his profile but remained haunted by dissatisfaction with her initial effort. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t really find anything,” she recalled. Manning’s body had been found in a field, underneath some branches, and his murder was unsolved. She was determined to write a good piece this time. “He’s the one whose name sticks with me the most,” she said.