UNC's student newspaper featured text messages sent during campus shooting. The paper's staff shares story behind emotional cover.

The Aug. 30 edition of The Daily Tar Heel the day after a school shooting took place on the North Carolina campus. (The Daily Tar Heel)
The Aug. 30 edition of The Daily Tar Heel the day after a school shooting took place on the North Carolina campus. (The Daily Tar Heel)

On Monday, Aug. 28, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill went into lockdown as authorities searched for an “armed and dangerous person.” Hours later, the suspect was in custody, and the lockdown order was lifted. Associate professor Zijie Yan was killed after being fatally shot inside a science laboratory. Tailei Qi, a graduate student at the university, was charged with first-degree murder.

Classes were canceled the following day, but one group of students had a job to do: put out the print edition of the Daily Tar Heel, the campus newspaper. Emmy Martin, the new editor-in-chief of the paper, knew that they could not run their original cover about the return of UNC football. The shooting left a lasting impact on the students, including the very people reporting on it.

The staff collected text messages sent and received by students during the incident. The messages, laid out one after the other in bold black and red text, took up the whole page. The messages include, “I’m so f****ing scared,” “Do you hear shooting,” and “Please stay there where you’re safe.”

Caitlyn Yeade, print managing editor of the Daily Tar Heel, shared the image on social media, writing, "Beyond proud of this cover and the team behind it." She adds, "If people feel moved by the front cover, you should turn the page and keep reading what we're reporting. Student journalists are always doing amazing work — and I'm biased, but on this specific occasion, we are in the community, we are the community, and we have so much to offer [in terms of] our thoughts and feelings and our reporting. I'm just so proud of the team we have and I don't want people stopping at this cover."

The powerful image quickly went viral. Hundreds of people commented on how unfortunately familiar these texts seemed in a nation that has seen 477 mass shootings in 2023 alone, per statistics from the Gun Violence Archive.

Martin, 20, answered three of Yahoo Life's questions about creating the powerful cover, as well as the experience of being a student journalist in the age of on campus gun violence.

1. What inspired this cover?

We print once a week at The Daily Tar Heel. On Monday, I was in lockdown in a campus building. This week, we had planned to have a football-focused paper — a special edition newspaper, our football preview. We've been working on a front page that was fully focused on our quarterback. And so of course, when we went into lockdown, I immediately knew ‘OK, we cannot run this as our front page. We cannot have a football preview edition across campus on Wednesday.’ So Monday after we got out of lockdown, after everyone was safe, we went to the newsroom and I talked with my staff to try to figure out what would work best on the front page. We knew a normal news page was not going to cut it — our community wasn't looking to us for normal content. So many people on campus were, in a way, traumatized by the situation — they had been locked in closets and barricaded in libraries, hiding in dark classrooms, hiding in bathrooms. No one is ever going to look at these classrooms that they were locked in the same way. No one's going to look at Monday, August 28, the same way ever again.

Originally, we were considering a fully blank front page. We left Monday unsure of what the front page would look like. I went home, and as I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep, I was thinking of all the messages that I had received while I was in lockdown. I was looking at all the texts asking, ‘Are you OK?’ asking, ‘Is there a shooter on campus, where are you?’ I was also looking at Instagram and seeing other UNC students posting those same texts that they had received themselves. That's when it clicked that this had to be our front page.

2. Where did the texts come from?

I texted Caitlyn Yaede, our print managing editor, and told her this had to be our front page. The next morning I woke up and I Slacked the editors of The Daily Tar Heel and asked them to ask anyone they know who may be comfortable sending their texts from Monday. Almost immediately after I sent that message, I started receiving so many screenshots of people's texts, people I didn't even know. These were some of the most intimate texts that they've probably ever sent people — texts like ‘I'm scared’ or ‘There's a shooter, I don't feel safe’ or ‘I wish I could get you.’ We started putting them on the front page. Caitlyn was the one designing and putting them on, and we were all figuring out what goes at the top, and what words to put in red.

Seeing how people respond to it, it’s overwhelming, and also incredibly rewarding seeing people respond so emotionally to our cover. I wasn’t expecting any response really from our cover, but to see millions of people see this and have thousands respond to it. It’s been unimaginable.

3. What is the newsroom like after the shooting?

I would say it's still not the same in the newsroom. It's still quiet. It's still a little emptier than usual. But the people who have stepped up, they have gone above and beyond and I'm just incredibly proud of the whole team of journalists and editors and photographers and graphic designers. It's hard balancing being a student and being a journalist and for so many people to step up and to be like, ‘I want to help I want to cover this,’ it’s just not what I expected. It's incredible and I'm so proud of them.

I personally had not reported on anything like this and I had never experienced an active shooter situation myself, but I definitely have thought about what I would do if I was editor of a newspaper on a campus where there was a shooting. After seeing so many shootings on campuses within the last few years, it was on my mind even before I applied for editor-in-chief. I wanted to make sure that I would be able to handle leading a newsroom through a traumatic event like a shooting. Even with that thought process, and I guess if you would call it preparation, you don't know what it's like until you've gone through it. It's been a tough job, but I am thankful that I had the opportunity to be able to serve our community in such a horrible time. I think it's also reminding me how vital our roles are.

I've had people ask if we are trying to send a message that's bigger than UNC with this cover. When we were creating this cover we weren't thinking, 'We want to make national headlines with it.' We were just trying to create a paper and a front page that people would remember and that would reflect the true feelings of students on campus on Monday, August 28, 2023. However, looking back at this cover from a broader perspective, and seeing how other people are viewing it, it is true that anyone who has lived through an active shooter situation will also have seen these texts and received these texts. It does speak to a larger issue of gun violence across the nation, which I think is part of why it's gaining so much attention.