Assessing Impact of Media

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Analysis

It took a group of heartbroken teenagers to move the needle on gun violence. Here’s how they did it.

In the month since the school shootingat Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 dead and numerous others wounded, the student leaders of the #NeverAgain movement have been able to move the needle on gun issues—even as many adults had thrown up their hands on the issues long ago. What’s more, the students’ impact has been significant:

The power of first-person storytelling

One of the reasons these student leaders have been able to inspire change so quickly that many had dismissed as futile is because, immediately after the shooting, they insisted on telling their own stories and calling for direct action—not just “thoughts and prayers.” What’s more, they’re telling their own stories in a way that survivors of previous school massacres have not been able to—either because of age or because the technological platforms that allow them to share so widely didn’t exist yet.

“Digital natives armed with smartphones, they found it second nature to capture, in graphic detail, their own reactions and conversations with loved ones during the shooting, as well as after the fact,” writes Maya Kosoff in Vanity Fair. “They’re well versed in disseminating their message on social media in real time, using platforms they’re already familiar with. Unlike survivors of Columbine, who came of age well before the smartphone era, or Sandy Hook, who were too young to speak out, Stoneman students have the means and the skills to share their message autonomously—no institutional gatekeepers required.”

Because the #NeverAgain leaders are speaking directly from their own lived experiences, it has been harder for critics to dismiss them, for example, by saying it’s “too soon” to talk about gun policies or that students who survived a mass shooting don’t know anything about gun violence. That’s not to say that the students aren’t facing intense, coordinated attacks against them. They are: Conspiracy theorists are claiming that they are “crisis actors” and have even asserted that the attack was actually a “false flag” designed to deceive the public.

But the leaders of this movement know how to deal with trolls. As 18-year-old Sofie Whitney told BuzzFeed News, “We are teenagers, aka experts of social media. The trolls only fuel our fire and give us the outlet to outsmart them with our wit.”

The students have also deftly responded to trolling and hate mail with memes and a parody video in response to one created by the NRA. And they’ve had an impact. Geoffrey A. Fowler of the Washington Post asked Crimson Hexagon, an analytics firm, to analyze the tweets of some of the Parkland movement leaders and found that they have generated 8.7 times the amount of conversation than the top dozen Twitter influencers on guns (once you take the president out of the equation). Fowler warns that the teens’ impressive ability to use Twitter to amplify their own voices and brush off trolls with humor may be eclipsing the fact that they are exposed to such excessive hate—including regular death threats—through social media platforms: “The same tech that makes Twitter an unprecedented platform for these teens also makes it an potent weapon for harassment.”

A well-resourced community raises eyebrows

The #NeverAgain student leaders’ impact on the national conversation was also due in part to the fact that they attended a well-funded public school, which actually prepared them by emphasizing public speaking and debate (some of the students had been preparing to debate the very issue of gun control). Leaders of the movement have benefitted from an education that has a renowned drama program and well-supported student newspaper (as evidenced by student journalist David Hogg’s ability to interview fellow students while hiding from the gunman in a closet). 

Many have pointed out that teenagers across the country who suffer from gun violence in their schools and communities with heartbreaking regularity have not received a fraction of the attention that the Parkland students have, a fact that has not escaped the students themselves: “We know that the reason that we’re getting this attention is because we’re privileged white kids,” says Parkland student Delaney Tarr. The Parkland teens have been using their position of privilege to help amplify those who are more frequently ignored, for example by meeting with Chicago teens who have not been able to have their voices heard in the same way.

What funders can do

Whose voices are heard and whose are ignored is a key point for philanthropy to grapple with, writes Robert Ross, chief executive of the California Endowment in The Chronicle of Philanthropy:

Were we succumbing to the attention that media and political elites had given the Parkland shooting and ascribing greater value to the shooting deaths of mostly white children?

That is an excellent and timely question—especially for a foundation that prides itself on being attentive to matters of racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. We decided the only way to deal with our failure to act earlier was to move ahead and act now.

That part of our deliberations was a discomforting moment for us, but this is how foundation boards grow on the matter of confronting structural inequality and racism in America: We need to lean into the discomfort that matters of race bring into our boardrooms and our institutions. 

In addition to giving deeper consideration to structural inequality and how it plays out in philanthropic strategy, foundations can take tangible steps to address gun violence. For example, Ross notes that the California Endowment is prohibiting including gun manufacturers in its investment policy, and rejecting approaches that lead to the further militarization of schools.

Nina Vinik, director of the Gun Violence Prevention & Justice Reform Program at the Joyce Foundation, a leader among philanthropies in supporting efforts to end gun violence, offers more suggestions for foundations seeking to help. “Now it’s time for philanthropy to step up,” she writes, on backing advocacy for stronger gun laws, investing in research and more.

Last year, we had the chance to hear from Vinik about the Joyce Foundation’s approach to combating gun violence as part of a screening and discussion of Newtown, a gripping documentary that explores the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. In a Q&A, Vinik talked about the role private philanthropy can play in supporting research even when the federal government’s support has been limited. (Although, the spending bill currently making its way through Congress may change that.)

“In 2011, we launched a funder collaborative to give donors a community of peer funders they can learn from, and leverage resources for greater impact,” writes Vinik. “This collaborative, Fund for a Safer Future, has been an important way to grow the field. I encourage funders to learn more and consider joining us.”