Senior journalism major and women's soccer team starting goalkeeper joined team of 29 Fellows to investigate U.S. gun rights and legislation.
When she thinks about it now, Elon University senior Kate Murphy still feels honored to have been selected a News21 Fellow. To hear Murphy describe it, she is “this girl who had one internship and just started writing for the school paper.”
But there she stood this summer in a newsroom in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, part of a select group of 29 Fellows—undergraduate and graduate students alike from 16 colleges and universities—ready to join a national multimedia reporting initiative titled “Gun Wars” that would investigate the issue of gun rights and gun legislation nationwide.
“They took a chance on me,” Murphy said. “I didn’t have a lot of experience compared to the other Fellows.”
But Murphy, a journalism major and the starting goalkeeper for Elon’s women’s soccer team, did have a few things in her favor: a history of hustle and impressive work in her reporting classes, the backing of several School of Communications faculty members who nominated her for the internship, and a background as a collegiate soccer player, which made Murphy stand out among other hopefuls and intrigued former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie, who supported her News21 application. Downie, now a professor at ASU, serves as an editor on the prestigious News21 project.
Murphy worked on four of the 25 stories that were produced for “Gun Wars,” earning a main byline on one of them. Her featured piece, titled “Armed teachers aim to defend K-12 schools,” reveals under what circumstances guns are allowed in schools, particularly in the aftermath of recent school shootings.
“I looked through all the states’ statutes dealing with firearms and weapons in schools and found that in a lot states guns are allowed in schools,” Murphy said.
In some states, only security guards my possess guns, but in other states, legally carrying citizens may bring them inside schools, and even teachers may bring them into classrooms. In fact, Murphy traveled to Salt Lake City to interview a teacher who keeps a firearm in her classroom.
Additionally, Murphy added support to three other parts of “Gun Wars.” For a story about public carry laws, she helped created a first-of-its-kind database that lists the different types of places—restaurants, churches, bars, etc.—that people may legally carry firearms in every state.
“That was an interesting thing to be a part of, looking at legal language and trying to interpret where someone could carry a gun,” she said. “That was some of the hardest work I’ve ever had to do, digging through pages and pages and pages of these state statutes.”
Murphy also helped compile into a database a list of every fatal college campus shooting from 1960-2014 and gather information from states about all gun deaths of minors (0-19 years old) from 2002-2012.
“The numbers are so great, thousands of children are dying due to firearms,” Murphy said. “It was devastating to read all these cases. (Gun violence) has become normalized and to be able to expose these stories and make people aware this is happening is important. I was happy to be able to tell these stories and bring some awareness.”
The kind of investigative journalism Murphy performed this summer was like nothing she had done to this point in her young career. Yes, she’s had the opportunity to write, but her experiences interviewing, researching, writing in-depth, gathering and interpreting data, and collaborating with other reporters, photographers and videographers was new. And it re-ignited her passion for journalism.
“News21 solidified that journalism is what I’m meant to do,” she said. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and it’s an exceptional feeling to know that going into my senior year.”
She said her reporting classes at Elon helped prepare her for the pressure she faced in the News21 newsroom because she had familiarity facing tight deadlines and digging deeply into stories. And the work she ultimately completed for “Gun Wars” was received well by the project’s main editors—Downie, Jacquee Pechtel (the executive editor of the project and a professor at ASU) and Peter Bhatia (an assistant editor of the project and the editor of the Oregonian).
“It’s really rewarding to have people so well respected and who are such great journalists themselves be impressed with my work and want me to do more,” Murphy said. “They challenged me every single day, but they were always there for support, and I really felt like they were there to make me better. They were what made that program special. They worked with me. I wasn’t just working under them.
“Downie told me, ‘We took a chance on you, and it paid off.’ I’m glad they did.”
News21 is a national student investigative reporting project that features the work of students from journalism schools throughout the country. It’s funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Carnegie Corporation of New York and other foundations. The newsroom is headquartered at Arizona State University. News21 journalism appears in media outlets across the United States, including The Washington Post, NBC News and National Public Radio.
This year’s project, “Gun Wars,” featured work from students at ASU, George Washington University, Hofstra University, Kent State University, Marquette University, Syracuse University, Texas Christian University, University of British Columbia, University of Florida, University of Maryland, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Oklahoma, University of Oregon, University of Tennessee and University of Texas at Austin.
The News21 program launched in 2010 with a story about U.S. transit safety. Stories since then have covered American food safety, voting rights and the treatment of veterans returning home.
In 2012, Caitlin O’Donnell ’13 and Kassondra Cloos ’13 participated in a News21 reporting project. They were the first Elon students to be selected for the program.