“If it bleeds, it leads,” I thought as my professor barricaded me and 20 other students in his office; a gunman was running around our college town’s sewer system, and we were locking ourselves in. Indiana University emergency alert texts warned that it could come out of the storm drain near the building we were in.
It’s a disreputable tenet of journalism: you run toward bloodshed while everyone else tries to escape it. As a young journalist, I regularly reported on gun violence. But now it was my turn to hide.
The air was warm, almost sticky from our collective breathing. Every head was bowed, sending or receiving updates, scouring social media for scraps of information, anything related to the whereabouts of that potential shooter. At one point, a photo of a man on Snapchat holding a large gun stirred the room. It wasn’t until later that we found out he was a member of law enforcement, not the barefoot, half-naked suspect in the sewers. But at that time we didn’t know anything except Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Uvalde. These shootings follow a script, and Bloomington, Indiana could have been the next line in the never-ending story of American carnage.
I was 20 when I covered my first mass shoot as a freelancer for The Washington Post. The year before, I left a murder scene with a victim’s blood on my shoes (my mother, unsuccessfully, tried to wash the stains off). And before that, at 18, my first journalism signing was for The Trace’s national reporting project, “Since Parkland.”
The project was spearheaded by student journalists from across the country who wrote nearly 1,200 obituaries for every American child and teenager shot and killed from 2018 to 2019. Week after week, a grim cycle unfolded: a young living Monday would be dead by Friday’s deadline. We told the stories of forgotten victims after the 24/7 news cycle, focusing on who they were in life, not just how they died.
Over the phone, I interviewed family members of the dead from my high school library. In September of last year, my third-period class emptied out as my classmates attended the funeral of a brother and sister shot dead by their father in a murder-suicide in a town further afield. . My stomach dropped as I read their names on my weekly assignment spreadsheet.
I had 100 words to capture their lives:
He was known to pull pranks and be mischievous with his family. A friend who loved his laugh cited him as an inspiration, a “loving and compassionate human being”.
He enjoyed fishing, reading and, above all, tennis. He loved playing for Zionsville High School, especially because of the camaraderie he had with his teammates.
On September 21, 2018, 15-year-old Harrison Fredric Hunn, along with his sister Shelby Hunn, was shot dead in his sleep by his father in Zionsville, Indiana. The same week as his funeral, his tennis teammates dedicated the section title win to his honor.
This work — their names — flashed before me as I sat on the floor of my professor’s desk, enduring the long minutes of lockdown. If the worst happens, I thought, who will write my obituary?
We were evacuated from the building about an hour later. But the adrenaline didn’t wear off until the next day. I woke up feeling like I had just swum in the ocean, beaten by the waves. I was sore with the fears of yesterday.
In the end, as my teacher wrote in USA TODAY, our confinement was not particularly newsworthy. Although the gunman threatened police with a gun, no shots were fired. No one died. After the suspect was arrested, officers found a machete, scythe and shotgun shells in the sewers, but no weapon. Yet lives have been interrupted. Dark imaginations – or memories – were activated as an entire town feared the worst. And in the happy absence of death, a complicated trauma has set in.
I know from my work and this helpless experience that we need stories that capture the diverse effects of gun violence, especially on this generation, which grew up with more school shootings and lockdown drills than any previous generation. When the carnage can be seen, we are more willing to witness the reverberations; we want to know how the story ends. But what about the living? Who reports on the injured, the survivors, the young people who live with the knowledge that their lives can be threatened at any time by armed violence? Who keeps track of the “lucky ones”?
As a journalist, I’m used to not having an answer. But I do know one thing: this is a composite, expanding and borderless model. Last month was my school. This month, it will be someone else.