As part of our “Generation Under Fire: Guns, Right & Safety” special, News 6, WKMG-TV embarked on a research project to study the history of fatal shootings on America’s school campuses. After an exhaustive search, we discovered no comprehensive and visual representation of this issue. All but four states in the country have had a fatal school shooting since 1960. In analyzing thousands of incidents during that 59-year period, the News 6 Investigators identified more than 600 fatal school shootings that killed over 900 people and wounded another 700+.
For our audience, this story was important as it coincided with the one-year remembrance of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, a shooting that killed 17 teachers and students. WKMG did not take a stand for or against or delve into the debate over Second Amendment rights. We instead focused on the number of fatal shootings and the specific instances of concern derived from the data.
None of us expected to find out almost a thousand people have died in school shootings in the U.S. since 1960, but it wasn’t a surprise to discover that most of the deaths occurred in high schools. In fact in the 1960s, there were seven fatal shootings in high schools; in the 1990s, that number peaked at 111. University fatal shootings are on the rise as well coming dangerously close to the number of fatal shootings in high schools in the 2010s. States with the most fatal school shootings held surprises as well. The top three states: California, Texas, and Florida. New York state was number 12 on the list and was tied with Oregon, South Carolina, and Washington D.C In a significant representation of this project’s impact after the story was published, the Department of Homeland Security recognized our project on one of their social media accounts and thanked us for the inclusion of their own studies.
For 2020, WKMG along with five other sister-stations in the Graham Media Group, is exploring the idea of adding 2019 statistics to this study and mapping each individual school shooting location. One other possibility is to create 47 other infographics to delve deeper into statistics and individual stories for each state and the District of Columbia that has had a fatal school shooting across what would then be a 60-year period.
The project was designed as an infographic and utilized the online program, Infogram. Using different Infogram tools, we were able to break down our data into multiple subsets easily digestible by the reader. Depending on the level of detail sought by the user, different charts, maps, or graphs can be filtered enabling the reader to drill down to a specific set of visualized data.
While the program worked well for data visualization, it was useless without the data. The data is the backbone of this project as it took months to assemble the raw information and needed multiple Excel spreadsheets to record and categorize each shooting and organize for input into Infogram.
Excel sheets/tabs had to be made for each individual visualization in the infographic (i.e. 20-year trend since Columbine, worst states, types of schools, safest places in a school, etc.). Four sheets were needed for the data with a total of 74 different tabs. One tab included information spread out over 1,189 rows; another across 73 columns. Because Infogram only supports five additional columns for text in its maps, one spreadsheet was created to collate multiple cells into one. Through trial and error, we also discovered that we could get around the five-column limit in Infogram by importing an Excel spreadsheet with up to (at least for us) 73 columns.
Once the infographic was complete, a simple embed code was used to place the final product in a web story.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The data. Definitely, the data. As previously stated, when we first embarked on this project, we thought it would be a relatively straightforward and simple process to gather a list of fatal school shootings that had occurred in the U.S. What we found instead was a mish-mash of incomplete lists of many shootings with no one list as comprehensive and authentic as the one we ended up creating.
For every fatal incident, WKMG used multiple accounts of the shooting to extract details for the data set. Aside from the 600+ shootings we included, we eliminated 91 other entries classified by various resources as fatal school shootings that did not meet our criteria. Nine more fatal school shootings could not be verified with an independent second source.
Finding the time to work on this project was a challenge as well. No one in our market (print or broadcast) has attempted to tackle this topic, and like many newsrooms, the resources for multiple individuals (or just even one) to take on a long-term project such as this is limited. One hundred percent of this project (research, design, and data visualization) was done by one individual. Because of the leadership in our organization, and the commitment to data journalism both in our newsroom and from a corporate level, the Graham Media Group has directed newsroom leaders to tackle more lomg-term data driven projects.
What can others learn from this project?
The best way to sum up this answer is with bullet points:
-Don’t be afraid to take on long-form projects that don’t have an immediate return. Though you won’t always get an immediate rise in ratings or increase in clicks, your audience will appreciate the effort that your organization is not always in it for the low-hanging fruit.
-Something like this can be done with just one person, but when taking on a project like this, teamwork will make things easier. Within that teamwork, designate individual tasks, but provide enough flexibility for people to cross in and out of different responsibilities.
-Always start with the data. More importantly, don’t be afraid to add to the data. Multiple times through this project, more details were added as we went along with our research, forcing us to go backwards in some instances to make sure we were being consistent.
-Get a buy-in from the boss. This project solely saw the light of day because our management made a conscious decision to free up time for an individual to do a very deep dive into a complicated topic. Because of projects like this, parent company Graham Media Group has now designated two individuals per newsroom as dedicated data journalists who have monthly conference calls and collaborate on corporate wide projects.