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Alum receives Pulitzer Prize for reporting on effects of AR-15s

A Corcoran School of the Arts and Design alum won a Pulitzer Prize last month for their reporting on the lethal effects of the AR-15 rifle.

N. Kirkpatrick, who graduated from Corcoran with a bachelor’s of fine arts in photojournalism in 2010 and is a visual reporter for the Washington Post, co-wrote two stories published within the last year that were parts of a series of stories that was selected for a Pulitzer Prize. The stories are told through interactive scrolling — a web design where the background moves as users scroll down the site — and detail how the AR-15 is used in mass shootings, including the Uvalde school shooting in 2022, and how its bullets pierce vital organs.

Kirkpatrick began working for the Post in 2010 as a photo intern and began a full-time role with the outlet in 2013 as a photo editor for their Morning Mix team. They were a photo editor for the Post’s international and special projects teams before moving to the visuals team as a reporter in 2021. Kirkpatrick was previously part of a team Pulitzer Prize award for the Post’s coverage of the January 6 insurrection.

Kirkpatrick said as a visual reporter for the Post, they combined traditional written reporting with photographs and visual simulations depicting how bullets entered the bodies of two shooting victims. Titled “The Blast Effect,” the first of the two stories, published in November, shows how bullets from the AR-15 “blow the body apart.”

The higher speeds and energies of AR-15 bullets causes more damage once it impacts a victim’s body, according to the article. In an interactive model, the article shows the trajectory of a bullet piercing through a person’s lungs and leaving the body.

“I get to work as a reporter where I can do deep reporting and shape a story through thinking about visuals from the onset of the piece, so ‘How can a story idea develop into a different visually driven form,’” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick said they read over 100 autopsy reports of victims of AR-15 shootings to establish a clear visual of how the victims were killed.

Kirkpatrick said it was important for the Post to get consent from the two victims’ families to report on how their children died. They said the families of Noah Pozner and Peter Wang, who died in the Sandy Hook and Parkland shootings, respectively, “wanted their stories to be told.”

“I was really surprised how open and willing they were to this idea,” Kirkpatrick said. “I was sort of expecting them to say no, and in fact, what I found was that they really just wanted their kids to be remembered and they wanted their stories to be told.”

Corcoran alumna Wendy Galietta contributed to the articles as a projects editor, Galietta graduated from the school in 2006 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in photojournalism.

Galietta is one of four projects editors tasked with overseeing the most “ambitious” coverage the Post publishes. She helped edit some of the stories that received the Pulitzer Prize, and said she worked to ensure that the team of over 75 journalists who contributed to the stories had their ideas and feedback for the stories were “heard” and “considered.”

“Part of the power of a newsroom the size of the Washington Post is that we can take the liberty of utilizing the form of collaboration to make these stories just really, truly visual, rich in their initial inception,” Galietta said.

Former executive editor Sally Buzbee said in a “Letter from Executive Editor” that designers intentionally picked a monochromatic palette and removed “some anatomical references” to keep the simulations focused on where the bullets struck the childrens’ bodies in the articles.

“Our goal was to try and make it feel as real as we could in a way that was not gruesome, nor would turn off our readers to even approach the story at all,” Kirkpatrick said.

The second story Kirkpatrick worked on, titled “Terror on Repeat,” includes embedded photos of crime scenes from mass shootings in America that are intertwined with oral histories from survivors of the shootings. Kirkpatrick said they used skills from their former role as a photo editor to determine how the Post could use photos they obtained to tell the story of mass shootings.

Kirkpatrick said they were involved in a lot of “different processes” of the story, including interviewing first responders and survivors. They said the families’ permission to share the victims stories particularly stuck with them because they were expecting “pushback,” but families wanted their children to be remembered.

Before the journalists viewed the graphic images, they all went through a training held by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University that discussed the ramifications of publishing disturbing images and how journalists can protect their well-being while viewing the images.

“They taught us different strategies of looking at graphic imagery and how to take care of yourself and how to do it in a way that could help promote the resiliency of our process,” Kirkpatrick said.

When Kirkpatrick found out the Post won a Pulitzer, they were surrounded by their family, including their partner, their two-year-old son and their mom. Kirkpatrick said having a strong support system was essential during the reporting process for the two stories.

“To have my family there with me when they announced it was really, really special,” Kirkpatrick said.

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