Editor’s note: Steve Hanf teachers Intro to Journalism and is the newspaper adviser at R.J. Reynolds High School, Winston-Salem, N.C. His JEA mentor is Martha Rothwell.
by Steve Hanf
The Earth-shattering news came 10 hours later. The 18-year-old clinging to life following the shooting was a recent graduate of our high school.
What transpired over the next 48 hours in terms of news coverage proved unquestioningly the value of scholastic media, the power of social media and one unrelenting fact that repeated itself unendingly in our heads:
Journalism matters. Newspaper matters. Yearbook matters.
Danielle Jameison graduated from R.J. Reynolds High School in 2011. She starred on the track team and was voted “Most Intelligent” by her classmates in the Black & Gold yearbook’s Senior Superlatives.
Less than two years into her college career at UNC-Chapel Hill, however, Danielle was in critical condition in a hospital in Greensboro, N.C., after being shot Jan. 7. Our high school’s athletic department Twitter account first reported the news, and after confirming the story through local media outlets, we retweeted and posted to our Facebook account the information that night along with a story referencing the tragedy. Several recent graduates who had been friends with Danielle “liked” the link on Facebook, thankful to be in the know about the situation.
Tuesday morning, it was clear that our student newspaper – Pine Whispers – needed an online story on an event that had shocked many of the upperclassmen in our school. The question of how best to pursue such a story remained: Kids still had to be in class. I still had to teach.
For starters, I reached out to the writers from the Greensboro News & Record whose bylines appeared in the Tuesday morning story. I am in my third year of teaching and second year of advising after a 13-year journalism career, and I knew those reporters would be able to help us – especially if we had something to offer in return.
Of utmost importance to us was receiving updates from the police on Danielle ‘s condition. I asked for that in an email to the reporters, offering in exchange what they needed most: photos from the yearbook. The reporters were eager to make the trade, and by noon they had some great material.
Our 2010-11 yearbook had a classy senior portrait of Danielle, her senior quote – a poignant piece by C.S. Lewis about her faith in God – and a Senior Superlative “Most Intelligent” photo in which Danielle had donned “nerd” glasses and was reading a book – upside down – in the media center. By 2 p.m., the News & Record had let us know that Danielle was still alive and also posted our photo online with an updated web story.
Meanwhile, my newspaper class that day included a sophomore who volunteered to write the story for our website. He had an indoor track meet that night, which meant he would be seeing athletes and coaches who knew Danielle. At the meet, he snapped an iPhone photo of teammates donning purple ribbons as a show of “domestic violence awareness” and shared it with our followers on Twitter. On Facebook, we reported that Danielle was still hospitalized and that a full story on the RJR reaction was to follow.
At 10:30, reporter James Tatter delivered the story to my inbox. It was beautifully written, filled with great quotes, and needed only minor edits before being posted on our website at 10:55. The only thing I added to the story came from the News & Record again – police had announced at an evening press conference that the shooter was Danielle’s mother.
Danielle’s mother, Sandra Palmer, had an argument that morning with Palmer’s long-time boyfriend. Palmer got a gun, shot and killed her 14-year-old son, shot and wounded her daughter, Danielle, shot and wounded the boyfriend, and then killed herself. The newspaper shared the press release with us. While it added a great deal of authority and breaking news to the overall story, I added a brief paragraph on those details to Tatter’s story near the lede and then focused on the tragic details toward the end.
The story, after all, was supposed to be about Danielle – who was improving – and the many fond memories people at Reynolds still shared of her.
On Twitter, that story got 13 retweets. It got seven likes on Facebook. Our website had more than 100 hits in that hour leading up to midnight per Google Analytics.
Then came the tidal wave.
Wednesday morning, the news editor of the News & Record sent me a note thanking us for our cooperation and mentioning this little tidbit: A story on its website talking about Danielle’s condition being upgraded mentioned how fondly her high school remembered her – and linked to our website.
“According to her high school newspaper, Pine Whispers, she is recovering and receiving visitors in the hospital. Read more in this piece by student journalist James Tatter.”
That day, PineWhispers.com received 958 visits – 916 of them “unique.” The next day saw 337 unique visitors hit the site. In this first year of being online, our previous high total of 158 hits had come during Homecoming Spirit Week when we posted “Hippie Day” photos. Further, the Facebook post reporting that Tuesday night story ended up being seen by 652 people and shared by scores of them.
The lesson in all of this was so simple, yet so powerful. What we do matters. You might not realize it when you’re snapping that 50th Senior Superlative photo in April. You might not realize it when you’re battling the intricacies of taking your high school paper online. But what we do as yearbook staffers, newspaper staffers, journalism teachers and publication advisers matters.
In this particular case, what we did spread awareness to classmates that a former friend was hurting. It helped stop the spread of unchecked rumor and innuendo by presenting the hard facts of the story. And it allowed others with no connection to the Reynolds community get a personal glimpse into Danielle’s life.
It was a relief to move on to lighter fare a few days later: deciding what size to make the Valentine’s Day personal ad hearts in our upcoming February print edition. That’s a new idea for us this year. We hope it will make us a little money. We hope the student body will get behind the idea and have fun with it.
We hope, in this little and innocent way, we can make a difference in a few more lives. Don’t wait for a tragedy at your school to realize just how much your publication matters.
Follow us @RJRPineWhispers and Facebook.com/PineWhispers