Senior Editor of The Trace brings single-issue journalism to Newsroom By The Bay
By Hannah Jannol
NBTB 2018 Counselor-In-Training
Nineteen children are shot in America every day. Three of those incidents turn out to be fatal, on average. Akoto Ofori-Atta says this is precisely why she covers gun violence in the United States.
Ofori-Atta is the senior editor of The Trace, a single-issue news source founded in 2015 by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to specifically cover gun violence in America. She spoke to over eighty members of the Newsroom By The Bay 2018 cohort on July 2 about her work at The Trace. The event was especially relevant to this group of young student journalists, a demographic that has received lots of press this year in the wake of Parkland, in which students around the country took hold of the narrative of gun violence in America.
“Ninety-one percent of children shot in high-income countries are shot in the United States,” Ofori-Atta shared with the audience. “This is a public health crisis which results in lost lives.”
Even though The Trace is a single issue news site, that does not mean there is a single type of story. In fact, the level of focus allows for greater diversity of coverage on a subject usually represented in the media by breaking news stories on shootings and legislature.
“We’re not a breaking news site,” Ofori-Atta said. “We are fifteen experts, so we sit back and wait. What can we add? How did someone get a gun who shouldn’t have? What are the things that need investigation? What questions are people asking? What are the things that demand a year or year-and-a-half of deep-dive reporting?”
And often, it is that longform investigative journalism that makes it onto The Trace. Ofori-Atta shared several examples of stories that had taken over a few months, or even over a year, to be completed. One written by Brian Freskos focused on what happens to stolen guns. Titled “Missing Pieces,” the 5,000-plus-word story followed the hundreds of guns that are stolen every year, that are often found later at crime scenes of murders and sexual assaults. Freskos filed a Freedom of Information Act request with a thousand law enforcement agencies across the country in order to see in-depth what had happened with every gun that had been stolen over a period of time, perhaps because the stolen guns had not been properly secured.
“All illegal guns start legally,” Ofori-Atta said. “All guns that do harm start out being bought legally. There is no market for guns being made illegally underground.”
Other story topics ranged from profiles of NRA chieftains, to a feature on the first responder paramedics at the Orlando shooting in 2016. The subject of a single-issue news source, especially one that covers gun violence, prompted several questions from the audience, which ranged from high schoolers to college students to longtime journalists like Beatrice Motamedi, who co-directs Newsroom By The Bay.
Motamedi asked about the efficacy of several interactive infographics which are often paired with stories to present large sums of data in a clear and easy way. One, for example, was a graphic which allowed readers to see every incident from 2014-2016 in which a child accidentally shot themselves or someone else because they received access to a weapon that was not properly protected. Ofori-Atta noted that they have found that pages with interactive materials retain viewers for longer than articles without a clarifying, illustrative, or enlightening visual.
The conversation opened to a different perspective as Motamedi’s husband, lawyer and photographer Andy Wiener, who claimed that if he “were a contrarian,” he would wonder why there are no data interactives which show how many lives are saved by guns in situations of self-defense.
“If an NRA member asked why we’re not writing about lives saved, I think we would respond by saying that the data does not suggest that happens,” said Ofori-Atta. “If you compare murders to people being saved, there’s no comparison, so it’s just not a story.”
Weiner remarked that the myth could be a story on its own.
Ofori-Atta added that there is a researcher, who she did not name, that has written about instances of lives saved because of gun ownership, but she described his numbers and research as “unreliable” and “problematic.”
The topic of pro-gun citizens responding to a website like The Trace was a source of curiosity for many audience members. She mentioned avoiding the use of the term “gun control” due to its politically charged connotations, opting instead for phrases such as “gun reform” or “gun regulation.” According to Ofori-Atta, some NRA members are readers of The Trace, and often interact with the editorial staff on social media. She noted how they often ask questions about specific figures reported by The Trace that they either have not seen before or have seen reported slightly differently and how these are the kinds of conversations that writers and editors are happy to engage in.
“The most we can do is have reporters respond to people and engage those folks in an honest and meaningful way,” she said.
Despite these efforts, Ofori-Atta still faces certain assumptions or misrepresentations of her work due to its topical nature.
“So a lot of what my director always tells us is to just ‘put your heads down and do work,’” she said. “We are documenting this journey—if you start to be too distracted by how people intentionally misread your work you just get distracted from the mission. So we just put our heads down and do work.”