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Tuesday, Apr 23, 2019
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Newsroom shooting survivor still rejects 'thoughts and prayers' unless action comes with them

TAMPA - An expletive heard around the world brought reporter Selene San Felice instant and unwanted celebrity.

Just hours after the shooting at the Capital Gazette that killed five coworkers around her, replying to the news that President Donald Trump had offered thoughts and prayers, San Felice said live on CNN, "I couldn't give a f--k about them if there's nothing else."

Soon after, the young journalist was inundated online by people angry that she had slighted the president, many of them saying they wished she had died with her colleagues during the June 28, 2018, shooting in the newsroom of the Annapolis, Md., newspaper.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio later lamented that the "F" word broadcast live on the news was an unfortunate "sign of our times."

Nearly a year later, San Felice, a 2016 graduate of the University of Tampa, has no regrets about her salty language on that deadly day. Even the hateful onslaught hasn't steered her away from the job she sees as a mission.

"This is what I am passionate about," said San Felice, 23. "This is the only thing I want to do."

Her perseverance in the face of tragedy has earned San Felice a distinguished alumnus award from her alma mater, to be presented 5 p.m. Tuesday during a ceremony and reception in the UT Sykes Chapel and Center for Faith and Values.

Then at 6 p.m. Wednesday, San Felice, a former Tampa Tribune intern who was production editor for UT's Minaret student newspaper, will join a panel discussion on "Careers in New Media" in the Lowth Entrepreneurship Center at the Daly Innovation and Collaboration building.

Both events are free and open to the public.

San Felice is among the Capital Gazette's reporters honored collectively as Time magazine's "Person of the Year," hailed as a "guardian" of the truth, in part, for returning to work the day after the shooting.

"I have a weird mix of feelings," said San Felice, a native of Millersville, Md. "I am happy to be recognized yet would give it all back in a second and be happy with no one knowing who I was if I could get those five people back and never go through that experience."

READ MORE: University of Tampa grad who survived Annapolis shootings was thinking of Pulse massacre

Still, John Capouya, an associate professor of journalism at UT who had San Felice as a student, said overcoming the newsroom massacre is just one reason she deserves the accolades. She also is a talented journalist, Capouya said.

"She is having a great career and shows a passion for local news, which is endangered all over the country," he said, citing her coverage of girls joining the Boy Scouts as an example. "She is a very accomplished alumnus who went through incredible trauma."

Still on the job, she is changed as a journalist by the experience, nevertheless.

When covering events that touch on hot button issues, San Felice sometimes considers whether she is in the best spot to flee the room if necessary.

Then there's the question about whether she can remain impartial writing about gun control - a topic hard for her to ignore as a features writer.

Just days after surviving the mass shooting, San Felice penned a column pushing for the kind of stricter laws that she believes might have helped prevent the shooter from buying his gun legally.

Weeks later, she joined students from Maryland's Great Mills High School for a pro-gun control rally outside the Maryland State House. A student at the school shot two other students March 20, 2018, killing one and injuring another before fatally shooting himself.

San Felice then covered the same Great Mills High students as a reporter on their road trip to meet with survivors of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland.

"Yes, we can be fair and, yes, the paper can be fair," she said. "You just need to know yourself and be honest."

In her article on the road trip, San Felice disclosed that she is a mass-shooting survivor and for that reason was given access to the Douglas High students.

Still, she said, "You can't silence my voice. You can't stop me from expressing myself after experiencing this."

Asked about her memories of the shooting in her newsroom, she said only say that she hid under a desk and was in "very close proximity to someone who died."

She spoke openly of the days that followed.

She had to sleep next to her mother for a week.

When she woke to hateful emails or comments on her social media pages, she'd read them as though they were meant to funny. After all, she said, it seemed a joke that anyone could believe mere words could hurt when five people lay dead.

What did bother her were trolls who said they were glad her coworkers were dead.

"How can people be like that?" San Felice said.

When her editor Rick Hutzell asked if she wanted to work the day after the shootings, San Felice never considered saying no, she said.

"If I didn't go, the shooter would win."

Today, she still scoffs at the idea that thoughts and prayers are an answer to mass shootings if they're not accompanied by action.

"I don't want sympathy," San Felice said.

"But if you feel bad for me, do something about it. Donate to a cause in my name or vote in a way that could change things. Do something beyond feeling bad for me and thoughts and prayers."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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