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Feb. 1, 2017, 1:16 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Kathleen Kingsbury: How The Boston Globe decided it had reached its threshold for moral outrage

“It’s one of those things that a lot of us had gotten into our business to do: to have impact, to change the world, whether you worked for the opinion pages or the newsroom.”

Editor’s note: On Tuesday, some very smart and accomplished people from the world of media gathered in a packed Sanders Theater to discuss the role of journalism in what some, at least, label a “post-truth” era. Today we’re publishing transcripts of their talks and conversations.

Here, Katie Kingsbury, the managing editor for digital at The Boston Globe, discusses a story where the traditional wall between the paper’s newsroom and opinion section came down — or at least took a few serious dents. You can find transcripts of all the speakers and our other coverage of the event here.

Like most journalists I know, every morning, when I wake up, literally the first thing I do is check my phone. On the morning of Sunday, June 12, I found six emails from CNN — breaking news alerts. It wasn’t even 7 a.m. yet. Dozens of people had been killed in a nightclub shooting in Orlando. “This looks bad,” I said to my husband, “I’ve got to go to work.”

I was at the time the Globe’s deputy editorial page editor. My boss happened to be on vacation, and so as I was turning on the coffee machine and switching on my TV, I started to text and email the editorial board. We needed to write something quickly.

I’ve got to admit I’m a little bit embarrassed to say that my first reaction that day was not one of outrage. In fact, I was feeling something that many of you in this room might feel when these tragedies happen. I felt kind of apathetic — numb. And so did my team. We had just seen it too many times: San Bernardino. Charleston. Aurora. Sandy Hook. We had written polite opinion pieces after each of these events — demanding change, insisting on change. We had asked for more background checks. We had asked for smaller bullet cartridges. We had asked for better mental health screening.

What had that all added up to? Nothing. This was still happening. The details were different that morning, but the story was so familiar: a killer with access to military-style weaponry mows down innocent Americans in cold blood. We felt like we had nothing left to write.

And then something happened that almost never happens. In journalism, we have rules, and then we have cardinal rules. One of the cardinal rules for newspapers is that we try to keep our opinion pages and our newsroom separate. For the newsroom, that’s a way to protect them from being accused of bias, to maintain their objectivity. At the Globe, this maintains itself with the editorial page being tucked down a dark hallway that no reporter tries to venture. For context, up to that day, I’d probably been in the room with the paper’s editor, Brian McGrory, twice in the three years that I had worked at the Globe.

But that night, Brian sent a note. He suggested that this horrific event could not go unremarked upon, and that we as an institution needed to do something radically different. In fact, he went as far as to suggest that we should wrap the entire newspaper in an editorial, standing against this kind of lunacy.

To my mind, though, one of the most extraordinary parts about this is that he wanted to work together. He wanted the editorial page and opinion pages to work with the newsroom on it.

So the next day, we got in a room. Editors, particularly from the news side, seemed visibly uncomfortable. Some of them were squirming. And I’ll admit that I also kind of wondered what we were all doing there.

But I think we all felt a similar fatigue — a desire to do something that could possibly move the dial. In fact, one of the easiest decisions for us to make that morning was the title of our project: Make It Stop. We all wanted to make it stop.

It’s one of those things that a lot of us had gotten into our business to do: to have impact, to change the world, whether you worked for the opinion pages or the newsroom.

So how to actually accomplish that is a whole other matter. Politicians still need and value citizens voices. But you’ve got to reach them in ways that they cannot tune out. And at the same time, we wanted to reach far more than the inside-the-beltway. We wanted to reach as many Americans as we could, and we wanted to use as many of the Globe’s various platforms as we could.

So we went to work, and three days later after very little sleep, this is what we came up with.

So I should start by saying that 60 people across the Globe organization worked on this project. There were some reporters involved, but primarily it was editors, graphic designers, engineers, and social media experts.

We felt strongly, to start, that we needed to have a discrete call to action. We quickly settled on calling for a renewal of the assault weapons ban. For some of us, this clearly didn’t go far enough — but it was a concrete step. The U.S. had such a ban until 2004, and in fact actually protects ducks from assault weapons. Yes — the U.S. government makes sure that you cannot use an assault weapon to kill ducks, but not humans. And the Orlando shooting would never have been as deadly as it was, if not for the fact that a man yielding this type of weapon was able to shoot off 24 shots in 9 seconds. Of the 300-plus people in the pulse nightclub at 2:02 a.m. that evening, one-third were struck with flying lead.

We also wanted to create a graphics display to explain how we have gotten here — who profited from this type of weaponry and who in government allowed it to happen. We also wanted to push past reported stories of gunmaker revenue, past the sternly worded editorials that often fell on deaf ears. We also tried to give a sense of how deadly these weapons are.

We chose to call out six U.S. senators by name. None are diehard NRA members, making this a quite difficult decision. But instead they were moderates: They had voted against gun control measures in the past, but were vulnerable in close reelection fights and often represented fairly moderate districts. These are six people who we thought we could change their minds — and if we changed their minds, we could change the law.

Again, we pushed past convention. We created pre-populated tweets and emails for our readers to send to the senators directly, asking for change. More than 8,800 tweets were sent, more than 10,000 emails.

Finally, we took over the Globe’s Twitter account. We created the hashtag #makeitstop, and every five minutes, we tweeted out the name and age of every victim at every location of every mass shooting since the last assault weapons ban had been lifted in 2004. It took more than 30 hours to know every name.

One of the most amazing things about Make It Stop is that we actually saw progress from it in a rather short time. Two days later, Kelly Ayotte, the senator from New Hampshire who had received the brunt of our texts and emails, changed her vote on an important gun control measure. No, the law did not change — but she changed her vote, and it felt like a huge victory.

But it also wasn’t a victory that everyone celebrated. Some of our colleagues distanced themselves from this project on social media. And a week later, I was asked to be on a panel at the Poynter Institute. I thought I was going to be talking about gun control that day. Instead, I was grilled for almost an hour about why I thought it was okay to do this — why the Globe thought it was okay to cross these lines.

Those were questions that were hard to answer, that day and since. I’ve thought a lot about them. Because you’re taught in Journalism 101 some fundamental tenets: Be accurate; be fair; don’t make yourself the story. By these measures, maybe Make It Stop had crossed some lines, had gone too far. Maybe.

But there are other responsibilities that we as journalists hold dear: Be a voice for the voiceless. Tell essential truths. Hold the powerful accountable.

Marty Kaiser, the former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, often talks about how, at the end of the day, even journalism organizations must have thresholds to allow for moral outrage. For the Boston Globe, that threshold was a group of young people at a nightclub, enjoying themselves, being mowed down in cold blood.

We cannot shrug our obligation to call out these atrocities as ones our community and our news organizations will not abide.

Photo courtesy Lydia Carmichael/Harvard Magazine.

POSTED     Feb. 1, 2017, 1:16 p.m.
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