After three young Muslim college students were shot and killed just outside the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill earlier this year, there was rapid-fire news coverage and heady conversations about gun control, religion and what makes a hate crime a hate crime. But, underneath all of that, there was a campus in mourning, and a community that was deeply hurting.
Intimately familiar with the nature of the quick-hit news cycle, eight journalism students in Chad Stevens' "Multimedia Narratives" class at Chapel Hill had a feeling that their community would want, and in many cases, need more opportunities to heal from the tragedy, once national interest began to fade.
So they did what journalists do: They got to work. They tossed out their regular class syllabus and created "After The Shooting," an interactive, multimedia approach to the story of the shooting.
The students started their initial planning during their first class meeting following the shooting in February, and the project went live on April 6, the same day death penalty hearings for the shooter, Craig Hicks, began.
Emily Rhyne, the lead editor on the project, told MTV News that prior to the shooting, the Chapel Hill community was generally considered a progressive and safe college town. "Because we pride ourselves on a liberal town identity," Rhyne said, "[The shooting] really shook us and made us reevaluate our campus."
The students collectively concluded that the mainstream coverage they were seeing was over-simplified, rushed and reductive. They wanted to see more nuance, more thoughtfulness, and more humanity.
Zeroing in on four major focal points surrounding the conversations — religion, mental health, media and guns — the students facilitated discussions between some of the main players in the community to try and make sense the ways all these complex and diverse ideas intersected. And knowing how important a wide variety of voices was in this discussion, they battled temperamental February weather and conflicting time schedules to give these community members plenty of space and time to interact with each other.
Simplifying A Hard Conversation
Clicking through the "After The Shooting" website, you can pick any two of the four categories (religion and guns, mental health and media, etc.) and you'll find yourself observing an honest and raw conversation between two people who care deeply about their subject-matter, and its relation to the shooting.
"In a way it's so simple, right? Let's bring the stakeholders together and hear what they have to say," Professor Chad Stevens told MTV News. "We wanted to take the dialogue to a higher level, and we felt this was an impactful way to do just that."
These conversations, Rhyne said, could be a little bit awkward or hard to approach, but she was impressed by how cordial their subjects could be, and the shared, earnest desire to make progress.
The dialogue between Duke Senior Reem Alfahad and UNC School of Medicine Professor Adam Goldstein particularly stands out because it represented the religion and mental health angles respectively, and offered a model for how emotionally draining but highly necessary conversations like this should go down.
"What was so amazing about it was how open they were," Lead producer for the project Gabriela Arp told MTV News. "For Dr. Goldstein to really listen and ask her, 'what can I do as a white male to change this [situation] and this narrative?' was a really powerful part of this discussion. If it was someone else they probably would’ve felt offended, but I feel like it was just the perfect example of showing the depth of conversation two people could have from two different backgrounds."
A Grateful Community Responds
Rhyne said the reaction from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, with the team receiving messages from more and more residents asking to be involved in future conversations. Sadly, because the students are at the end of their semester and resources and time are oh-so-limited, Arp and Rhyne say expanding further may not be possible.
They don't want the conversations to end, though.
"We’re hoping it’s a model for coverage for tragic events like this, so people don’t feel like the narrative has to die once that news cycle moves on," Arp said. "Instead they can continue more nuanced conversation after the tragedy, and extend news coverage beyond what we see in the media."
For a lofty project like this, they had a pretty fast turn-around time, but the patience and thought put into each part of it is a refreshing reply to the more fast-paced coverage, and hopefully fulfills the clear desire to move forward and to heal.
"We believe that there is space, in the right situations, for a slower journalism, for a more thoughtful reporting that can connect with an audience in a deeper way," Professor Stevens said. "When we were conceiving of the project, I remember a student called the reporting from the day after [the shooting] 'ASAP journalism.' We want to counter that, to let things sink in, to believe in our audience."