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How one reporter overcame lack of data and political traps to tell story of rising numbers of children shot in Florida

How one reporter overcame lack of data and political traps to tell story of rising numbers of children shot in Florida

Picture of Ryan White
Mackenzie was 2 when she accidentally shot herself with a handgun found in her family's home. She nearly died, but has since lar
Mackenzie was 2 when she accidentally shot herself with a handgun found in her family's home. She nearly died. (Photo by John Pendygraft/Tampa Bay Times)

It began as a reporter’s hunch.

Kathleen McGrory, then the health and medicine reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, noticed in 2015 what she thought was an uptick in stories of children killed or injured by guns across the state of Florida.

“It really did feel significant to me,” McGrory told fellows during her keynote address to the 2018 California Fellowship this week. Yet turning that hunch into rigorous stories would first require data, something McGrory quickly realized didn’t exist.

Florida’s Department of Health must record gun-related injuries and deaths, right?  It didn’t. The Department of Law Enforcement? Nope. But McGrory and her colleague Connie Humburg, data reporter at the Times, realized they might be able to create the dataset they couldn’t find elsewhere.

The Times has made it a longstanding practice to request emergency room and inpatient discharge records in the state. It’s a massive database: There were some 60 million records for 2010-2015. In a grueling data slog, the duo first identified more than 300 codes involving firearms — there are separate injury codes for everything from hunting rifle accidents to handgun assaults — and then filtered the results down to children. They found 2,859 children injured by guns over six years of data. 

But McGrory, now a reporter on the Times' investigations team, knew this wasn’t the complete picture. From her days covering the cops beat, she knew that if a child died in a shooting, the child would be taken directly to the medical examiner’s office — as a result the death wouldn’t show up in hospital records. So McGrory also had to request records of child fatalities from the more than two-dozen regional medical examiners’ offices across Florida. When she combined this data with the hospital data, she found 3,168 children had been injured or killed by guns from 2010 through 2015.

“We found one child shot every 17 hours,” McGrory said. “It was a pretty stunning statistic. And no one had ever calculated it before.”

The number of children injured by guns rose 26 percent from 2014 to 2015 alone. The number of gun deaths was comparable to the number of drowning deaths in the state. Among children ages 14 to 17, it was the first cause of death in the state.

When McGrory started calling up researchers to ask what was driving the rise in injuries and deaths, many had a similar theory: “More guns means more injuries.” In an effort to quantify this, McGrory turned to data on a couple proxy measures and found that background checks had jumped 66 percent in that time window, while concealed carry permits had doubled, way outpacing population growth in Florida.

As newsworthy as the trend lines were from the data, McGrory knew she needed to tell the stories of families behind some of these data points to bring the problem to stories to life. Most families she reached out to didn’t want to relive their tragedies, but some were willing to talk. She traveled across the state with photojournalist John Pendygraft, visiting graveyards, sitting in living rooms and listening to mothers describe the worst day of their lives. It was a gut-wrenching and emotionally draining experience.

McGrory spent a great deal of time with one family in particular. Mackenzie was 2 years old at the time when her mother, Jessica Piascik, heard a loud noise from the bedroom. In a that draws on pediatric trauma surgeons to explain why a bullet inflicts such devastating damage on the body of a child, McGrory recounts the original moment of horror:

“Piascik hurried to the girl. She found Mackenzie standing near the bed, her brown eyes unusually wide. The toddler took a slow step toward her mother, reached out her arms. The back of her Tinkerbell nightgown was wet with blood.” 

The bullet, fired by a gun her mother’s boyfriend had left on the night table in their bedroom, tore through four organs and caused a nearly fatal loss of blood. Despite her near-death injuries, Mackenzie survived and, seven years later, has largely recovered.

McGrory’s eight months of reporting culminated in the three-part series which ran shortly before Florida’s 2017 legislative session got underway. “It didn’t move the needle one bit,” McGrory said, pointing to the Republican-dominated senate, house and executive branch. Florida was the state that had ushered in “stand your ground” and concealed-carry laws, after all. “In that year at least any type of gun legislation was unthinkable,” she said.

But after the Parkland, Florida tragedy unfolded one year later, that may be changing.

“The political climate has changed, both in Florida and nationwide. There’s a big national conversation about guns and the laws the cover them, making this a prime time to cover the issue in your community,” she said.

In covering the politically fraught issue, McGrory had a couple key pieces of advice for her fellow reporters.

“You need to challenge your sources to go beyond political rhetoric. You’ll hear a lot of talking points whenever you report on guns,” she said. “For me the easiest way to get past that was to keep bringing conversation back to the data.”

Finally, she urged journalists to keep the focus on the human lives at the heart of these stories. That means giving voice to parents and kids directly affected by gun violence, and patiently bearing witness to their difficult stories.

“Don’t forget your humanity. Data and policy analysis can be illuminating and important, but at its heart this is a story about people.”

**

Read Kathleen McGrory’s three-part series , and read own reflections on reporting the series here. 

Comments

Picture of <span class="username">Guest (not verified)</span>

This is a really important story, but I believe there is a typo at the end of paragraph 6 in the date range (counting the first sentence as 1).

Picture of Ryan White

Hi Laura, thanks for the catch. That sentence, now amended, should read: "When she combined this data with the hospital data, she found 3,168 children had been injured or killed by guns from 2010 through 2015."

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