“Behind the South” – Terry Spencer Interview


Terry Spencer is an Associated Press reporter for Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and has been with the AP since 1999. He covered the U.S. government’s seizure of Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez, the 2000 Florida presidential recount, numerous hurricanes and about President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club. Spencer regularly reports on environmental issues in his region of Florida. Spencer also covered the tragic 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. In the shooting, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire and killed 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School. In 2022, Cruz was sentenced to life in prison. 

Terry Spencer

In your opinion, how did the shooting impact the local community in Parkland? Have you seen any long-term effects on the community since the incident?

For most people, I don’t think it’s changed their lives much at all. I mean, it’s changed the law in Florida. It’s changed some things, but I don’t live in Parkland. I live about 20 minutes from Parkland and haven’t been there much. I’ve been to Stoneman Douglas probably more than any other school than the one my kid attended, but I haven’t been in the community all that much. So I can’t really speak to how the community in Parkland has changed. There were a lot of stand with Parkland bumper stickers; there were lots of stand with Parkland shirts. There were a lot of people at the memorial services, people who didn’t live in the area. There was a protest about a month afterward. Probably several 1000 people were at it. So, those are the kinds of things you saw. But long term, I’ll be honest; I don’t know the last time I saw a stand with Parkland bumper sticker on a car. You saw them all the time, four or five years ago, but today I don’t know the last time I saw one.

How did covering the Stoneman Douglas high shooting differ from other stories you’ve covered in the past? Did you feel any personal or emotional impact from the incident?

I’ve been a professional journalist since 1987. So this was, you know, 31 years into my career, and I had never covered anything quite like this. In many ways, it was very close to home. I have one child, I have a son who had just graduated from high school, a few months before the shooting. My son was in band when he was in high school and the school district had its band evaluations at Stoneman Douglas every year; so my son would go over there, I would go with my wife and we’d go over there with other kids from the school for this event every year. They would always be in that building. So I’ve been at that school every year for four years, and then Stoneman Douglas is in the same athletic league as my kids’ school. So we’ve been over there a couple of times for high school football games in the years leading up to the shooting. I’ve been to this school, and I’ve been in that building, so it was harder to take a step back from it than a lot of other stories. I’ve covered crime in courts mostly throughout my career. So I think I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing things, but this was much harder to do and there was a lot of stress in it and a lot of sadness going to funerals for kids who are just a little bit younger than my son. Talking to kids who had to live through things that they shouldn’t have had to live through that weren’t much younger than my son, and Cruz is basically my son’s age. Just looking at him, if you didn’t know his history, there is nothing about him that when you look at him that would make you think that he was somebody who would do this. Now, obviously, if you know him, there are lots of things that would make you think he is capable of this. But otherwise, he just looks like a normal kid, which was a bit disconcerting.

As a journalist who has covered a tragic event like the Stoneman Douglas high shooting, how do you balance reporting the facts with respecting the privacy and grief of the victims and their families?

You know, they have no obligation to talk to me. So if somebody didn’t want to talk to me, I respected that, but a lot of the families wanted to talk. They wanted to talk about their kids and how angry they were that this had been allowed to happen. They wanted to talk about the changes they wanted to see because of this. So, those were the people who we still talk to to this day. And then there are some families who have made it clear they don’t want to talk to reporters. So I respect that and leave them alone. They have no obligation to, and I don’t need to add any stress or pain to their lives by, you know, putting my recorder in their face or getting people to take pictures of them or whatever. So, you know, you just have to respect it.

The Associated Press marked the shooting’s anniversary with a smart accountability journalism piece about a key Florida “red flag” bill passed in the massacre’s wake. The story was a strong look at how red flag laws – passed in nearly a dozen states since Parkland – are playing out on the ground, and it drew widespread attention and engagement. Did this legislation have a significant impact  on gun violence prevention efforts in Florida?

I guess it depends on the county, as you saw in my story, and it’s still true today. Some counties are very aggressive in enforcing the red flag law, and others don’t use it or barely use it. I’ve been trying, but I haven’t been able to get good data on whether the number of homicides or the number of suicides has gone down in the counties that enforce the red flag law compared to those counties where it’s fairly enforced or not enforced at all. The problem is that each of the medical examiners are by district, and some of them do an excellent job of tracking gun violence and suicide. But others, not so much. So it’s been a little bit difficult getting that information. I’m hoping to get back to it at some point and see if I can figure out how to determine whether the red flag laws had any impact on the level of violence and suicide.

How have you seen the issue of gun violence and school shootings evolve in the years since the Stoneman Douglas high tragedy, and what steps do you believe should be taken at the national level to address this issue?

I’m a journalist, not a politician. So I don’t go into what I think should be done about anything because that’s not, that’s not my role. In Florida, we saw in the immediate aftermath of Stoneman Douglas; this was a state where you would have been hard-pressed to believe that they would strengthen gun laws because of the politics in the state. But in the immediate aftermath, they raised the age limit for buying a long gun from 18 to 21. However, there’s some talk about rolling that back. They enacted the red flag law, which many gun rights proponents don’t like. They’ve kept that, but on the other hand, now you don’t need to get a permit anymore to conceal carry. That got repealed. I don’t know how much impact long-term it’s had on gun laws here in Florida, but, on the other hand, they’ve kept the red flag law in place, and they’ve kept the law to increase it from 18 to 21 for a long gun in place. So they do have that still. But whether the long gun law remains, I don’t know. But we will see.