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‘After the Shooting’ project created after Muslim student slayings in the South

Craig Stephen Hicks is accused of killing three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Feb. 10. Killed were 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, her 23-year-old husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat, and her 19-year-old sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Two competing theories surrounding the killings emerged: Did the confrontation arise over a parking dispute, or was it a hate crime? Disappointed by what they saw as an “oversimplified” narrative that was developing, a group of students from the University of North Carolina decided to more closely examine the tragedy. Below is an interview with Emily Rhyne, one of the producers of “After the Shooting.” 


How did you select this topic?

“After the Shooting” was born out of the desire and urge to cover the tragedy in our own backyard in a compelling, comprehensive way. The morning after we found out that the three people slain were Muslim students, news crews started to swarm by the dozens. It became not only a local conversation but also a global conversation.

Overall, we were disappointed by the coverage, as we thought that it oversimplified the narrative to either a parking dispute or hate crime. As a team, we thought that by digging into issues such as gun rights, religion, mental health, and media portrayal of Muslims, we could create a project that was better contextualized and revealing of the current-day climate of America.

The interactive format is interesting. How did it come about and how did you find experts to discuss the topic from the particular viewpoints?

So, once we decided that we wanted to cover this, we had to decide the medium. We went to the vigil not knowing how we would cover it – classic documentary or interactive – but figured that the footage would be important somewhere down the line. We decided on the interactive format for a number of reasons. First, we didn’t want to create a piece with a clear beginning and end, or with a question and answer in mind. Because, frankly, we didn’t know how the story would develop when we started. We wanted to start a conversation, and we found the interactive format best suited for that. Secondly, we wanted to engage our audience in a new way. It’s so easy to hit play on a video and then zone out or become disengaged.  When asking a viewer to click through the site and make their own choices, our hope is that they feel more connected to the content we are delivering.

The opening video works well to summarize the issue of the shooting. Can you describe the process of making it?

After settling on an interactive format that would be interview-driven, we knew that we needed something that would hook the audience. That’s why we made an introduction video.  When editing that, I knew that I wanted to show both the grave reality of the situation and the narratives that followed.  Using the 911 call gave it an investigative feel – like you were there – but I also wanted to show the expansiveness, yet polarization of the coverage.  Using the clips from various news outlets showed the conflict – parking dispute or hate crime – and how everyone, even celebrities, were chiming in on it.

Did you have any particular logistical challenges? How many people worked on the project?

Between students, faculty advisers and project participants, there were over 20 people involved in the making of this project. Working in a team this large was a learning curve for all of us, as most of us are used to working in one-man bands!  We quickly learned that we needed to allocate roles in order to be effective. From producing and editing to Web design and social media, each and every part of the process was intentional.

The most difficult part was definitely coordinating everyone’s schedules for the interviews. Without Gabriela Arp, our lead producer, none of the scheduling would have been possible. Additionally, we had a lot of snow during the week of the interviews, which was an extra hurdle to navigate.

How have viewers reacted to the piece and what did you learn throughout the process?

Yesterday was an incredibly rewarding day. When we launched, we had no idea whether or not it would take off, or even if it would be well received.  We have all been a part of projects that die quickly after they are launched, but this project was different.

The best thing so far has been the range of people who are engaging with the site. It’s not just journalists – or even people interested in video work. We have received messages, tweets and shares from mental health organizations, professors, students and friends of Deah, Yusor and Razan.  It’s being used in classrooms as a teaching tool and being pushed out by large-scale media organizations with tangible influence.

When reflecting on what we have learned from this process, I think back to the beginning of the semester. None of us started this class with the intention of tackling a large-group project.  The multimedia storytelling class that we are in is actually focused on one vèritè-style project.  Yet, when the shooting happened everything changed.

This is a lesson that we will all carry with us moving forward – that our work isn’t about us or our own agendas – it never will be.  This story was, is and will be important for a very long time, and it was our job as journalists to cover it with empathy, intentionality and care.

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