In-depth reporting on school shootings : NPR Public Editor Complexity and nuance make stronger stories

In-depth reporting on school shootings

Complexity and nuance make stronger stories

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor
Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Two audience comments about NPR's journalism in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting gave us insight into NPR's unique role.

When mass shootings happen, the collective media ecosystem kicks into high gear. Teams of journalists descend on the scene, asking and answering the fundamental questions: Who, what, when, where, and how. The why comes later, in bits and pieces. And after that comes the stories that offer deeper meaning.

NPR often leans on its network of member stations and The Associated Press to nail down the breaking news. In the days and weeks, and even months and years that follow, NPR's stable of national correspondents and beat reporters go deep into covering many more issues.

In our first letter today, an NPR audience member criticized a story originally published in 2019 from Health Correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee, whose reporting focuses on mental health. For her story, Chatterjee looked at studies and talked to experts who are tracing the pathway to violence that many school shooters follow.

The audience member was concerned about how the story examined mental illness as a risk factor for threat assessment. As they pointed out, another NPR story proclaimed in its headline that there is "little connection between mental health and mass shootings," according to experts.

Chatterjee shared the concern about drawing a direct connection between mental illness and violence, and took steps in her work to avoid leading people to that conclusion. In fact, both stories are accurate. Together, the stories add to the nuance and complexity required to make sense of mass shootings.

In our second letter, a listener wrote in to ask about the pronunciation of Uvalde, and once again nuance was at the heart of NPR's final advice to journalists on the question.

Finally, we spotlight a beautiful piece of NPR storytelling out of Uvalde on the history of Robb Elementary School. We also highlight a photo story about neighbors working to preserve their land. These stories set NPR apart from other newsrooms and strengthen our love of journalism.

FROM THE INBOX

Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Connecting school shooters to mental illness

Kelly Carbello wrote on May 30: This article [about school shooters] contains information that is incorrect. There was a different story on NPR that supports my assertion. It is not only irresponsible, it is harmful to certain groups. ... Please correct this article to state that mental illness is not a risk factor in threat assessments.

The two stories referenced here are both part of a significant catalog of in-depth reporting done by NPR journalists with the goal of helping Americans understand school shootings.

The headline over the story in question: School Shooters: Understanding their path to violence is key to prevention

The headline over the other story: Experts say there's little connection between mental health and mass shootings

The first story, which includes both a written piece and an audio report, does spend time exploring the mental health of school shooters. It first aired in 2019, nearly a year after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where a former student murdered 17 people. It was updated with new information and statistics last month after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were killed. NPR Health Correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee reviewed multiple studies of school shooters, from the FBI and the Secret Service, and interviewed experts who work in the area of threat assessment.

Reading and listening to the story, I found nothing that merits a correction or a clarification. One section of the written story focuses on "the role of mental health problems." The first sentence under the section says psychologist John Van Dreal emphasizes that mental health issues don't cause school shootings.

The section continues, "After all, only a tiny, tiny percentage of kids with psychological issues go on to become school shooters. But mental health problems are a risk factor, he says, because they can decrease one's ability to cope with other stresses. And studies have shown that most school shooters have led particularly stressful lives."

Chatterjee goes on to say in the audio story, "Most people who are feeling suicidal don't attack others and most people with mental illness are not violent. So what makes a tiny percentage of kids become violent and homicidal?"

The experts in her story describe the elements they find in school shooters: On top of multiple losses and struggles in their lives, school shooters are isolated for an extended time, their despair morphs into anger, they feel humiliation, and they blame others for their pain. And they have access to guns.

"It's become clear to the people who understood and studied school shooters and school shootings very closely it's not this or that," she told me during a phone interview. "It's not a binary, mental illness or access to guns. It's multiple risk factors."

Her story also described interventions advocated by the experts, including better access to mental health treatment, more support and interventions for families, and restricting access to guns.

The other story aired on ATC in 2018, after the Parkland shooting, when then-President Trump announced that America needed to lock up more people in mental institutions to prevent school shootings. One expert source in that story states, "If you talk to any practicing psychiatrist, they will tell you that the risk factors for gun violence are being a young, angry, socially isolated man. Sometimes in the constellation of effects, you will also have people with mental illness."

Both stories are accurate, because they are assessing the problem from different angles. Chatterjee's story was starting with school shooters, asking what experts know about them. The other story was starting with the broader category of people with mental illness and asking if experts can make a connection to gun violence.

"You don't want anybody to think that if somebody has a mental illness, they are going to be violent, because that's simply not true," Chatterjee said.

Both stories are important, nuanced and critical to a fuller understanding of mental health, gun violence and school safety. — Kelly McBride

Pronouncing Uvalde

Bryan Thompson wrote on June 2: I'd like to know how you determine the pronunciation of Spanish names in America, to wit: "Uvalde."

Anglo speakers say, "Yew-VAL-dee."
Latinos say, "Oo-VAHL-day."

It is a Hispanic name, but it's in Texas. Shouldn't you settle on one pronunciation for everyone?

We've also heard the different pronunciations of the town. The short answer: NPR journalists can use their preferred pronunciation. But it took a bit of work to get there.

On May 26, NPR's Managing Editor for Standards and Practices Tony Cavin sent guidance to newsroom staff about the pronunciation. "Residents of Uvalde pronounce the name of their town as 'you VAL dee,'" Cavin wrote, citing the managing editor of The Texas Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR and public radio stations across the state.

Cavin said NPR had received some letters from listeners complaining they've heard "you VOL dee" on the air. One person, he added, wrote that hearing it mispronounced was "like pronouncing a victim's name incorrectly over and over ... even when their friends and family say it correctly to you hoping you will say it right."

In an email, Cavin said his initial guidance prompted many responses from NPR colleagues who noted that locals pronounce the town's name in different ways.

"I thought their arguments made sense and that no matter which pronunciation we used listeners would understand what we were talking about," Cavin said. "So I revised my guidance to say that NPR staff should use the pronunciation they prefer."

The discussion among NPR journalists prompted a story by Weekend Edition Assistant Producer Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, which goes in-depth about the pronunciation and the town's history.

"Because Uvalde is a town made up of mostly Latino or Hispanic residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau data, landing on a "correct" pronunciation is tricky — the language of the people who live there exists on a sliding spectrum between Spanish and English, and often consists of a combination of the two," the story reads. "But how we say Uvalde matters, because it represents a long lineage of how Latinos have been racialized in the U.S. and in South Texas, specifically."

Gomez Sarmiento reported that Uvalde was originally named Encina, after the oak trees that grow in the town. Its name was later changed in honor of Mexican governor Juan de Ugalde. According to a source in the story, Uvalde's pronunciation is inherently complicated because the word is a misspelling of its namesake.

Cavin's reissued guidance acknowledged that there are multiple viewpoints on this that deserve understanding, and he decided that allowing staff the freedom to pronounce the name in a way that is natural to them was the best option. — Amaris Castillo

SPOTLIGHT ON

The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

A necessary history lesson

NPR's National Correspondent Adrian Florido reported on a chapter in the history of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers. At the center is 83-year-old Josue "George" Garza, who in 1965 was a fifth-grade teacher there. Uvalde was segregated at the time, and so Garza, wanting students to take pride in their school, tried to beautify it by planting pecan trees. During Florido's eight-minute story, we hear from other Uvalde residents who were part of a Mexican American community that began to stand up for itself. This is a tenderly crafted story about the school's transformation, told through a few people who lived it. — Amaris Castillo

Neighbors helping neighbors

These spare and beautiful sentences perfectly sum up the heart of this Picture Show piece : "Fire is not always bad; trees are not always good. By working together, the grasslands can be restored." Andria Hautamaki's photos take us on a journey to south-central Nebraska, where landowners seek to save open plains from woodlands that can harm grasslands. Some of the conversion to woodlands can also make wildfires worse, as certain trees are more likely to catch and spread fire. Hautamaki captures the neighbors sporting their worn hats and muddy boots as they unite to try to preserve the land they call home. — Emily Barske

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall and reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Chair,
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute