For Scott Travis, his career in journalism could be described as a course in for better or for worse.
What began with monitoring comics for gay content eventually led to writing for a Pulitzer Prize-winning team. Feb. 14 marks the three-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting when a troubled teen walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with a semi-automatic rifle and killed 17 people. Travis was part of the Sun Sentinel’s reporting team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for exposing the failings by school and law enforcement officials in preventing the tragedy.
“I thought that winning a Pulitzer was an incredible honor and an incredible outrage,” Travis said. “It was an outrage because of the fact that 17 people died, and if that hadn’t happened then we wouldn’t have won it. It was so preventable in all the reporting that we did because all the warning signs were there that this person was gonna do something.”
Travis began working at the Sun Sentinel in 1999, where he covers education. He admits to being a thorn in the side of the Broward County Public Schools. Recently, Travis’ reporting led to the indictment of the School District’s Chief Information Officer on charges of bribery and bid-rigging.
“There’s a lot of problems with the school district,” Travis said. “There are many concerns that it’s not run very well. They’re the subject of a grand jury investigation right now. Depending on what the outcome of that is, it makes everybody in the district’s future uncertain if it turns out to be something really bad.”
In terms of equality and acceptance of LGBT issues, Travis gave the district high marks.
“Broward is better than most,” he said. “It’s probably one of the most LGBTQ-friendly school districts in the country. As much corruption, misspending and incompetence there has been, their heart seems to be in the right place when it comes to LGBTQ. It was one of the first school districts to do a proclamation for LGBT history month. They’ve done a number of forums and included LGBTQ views in a lot of their programming on vulnerable teens.”
Travis admits he was spared any sort of discrimination growing up in Alabama. He came out to his mother at 27, frustrated with her constant inquiries into his dating life.
“She kept asking me over and over again about what seemed like every woman I had ever met,” Travis said.
Over time, Travis said, his parents became more accepting.
“Their generation just didn’t talk about it,” he said.
It was a gradual coming out process in his first reporting jobs in Mississippi and North Carolina.
“I wasn’t out at my first job in Natchez,” he said. “In Hattiesburg and Fayetteville most of the reporters knew I was gay, some of the editors did but nobody ever treated me bad because of it,” he said.
It was at Hattiesburg American in Mississippi where an editor asked Travis to check the comic strips for gay subject matter.
“He wanted to know if it was there so he could be prepared,” Travis said.
Later, while working at Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina, Travis endured a demeaning company policy that refused to recognize homosexuality as normal, did not encourage reporting on gay issues and advised against listing gay lovers in obituaries.
“We have no interest in being a homosexual bulletin board,” Travis recalled of the policy, which is long gone.
It was through NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists that Travis got a fresh start in South Florida. He took a vacation day at the Fayetteville paper, traveled to Atlanta for the annual NLGJA convention and was hired by the Sun Sentinel. Looking back, it was a covert move, Travis said.
“I went on my own to the gay conference so I obviously didn’t feel comfortable about it,” he said.
Nearly two decades later, with sexual orientation disclosure issues behind him, Travis had one of the country’s biggest stories erupt on his beat. Simply put, the Parkland shooting changed him.
“This was a story where there was no moving on,” he said.
Emotion, Travis said, is often lacking in journalists who have death, destruction, illness, and mishaps as daily assignments. Parkland put a pause on the easy dismissal of bad news.
“It probably made me a lot more empathetic and in touch with reality,” he added. “Before Parkland it was really easy for me to move from one story to the next and not fully take in the grief I would see people experiencing after the tragedy.”
A memorial in Parkland. Photo courtesy of Scott Travis.
Brittany Wallman is one of Travis’ colleagues at the Sun Sentinel and was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations team. She describes Travis as a “truth warrior” with a great sense of humor who works long hours exposing cover-ups, trying to get information leaked and staying in contact with sources. They worked together in the newspaper’s Deerfield Beach offices.
“I always teased him, ‘Do you live here? Where’s your pillow?'” Wallman said. “He was always at his desk every night before I left.”
Travis penned five of the Sun Sentinel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning articles. He said the big lie was that the school was super safe and rarely had discipline issues.
“If you looked at the crime stats of Stoneman Douglas it looked like the safest school in the state because every incident whether it was guns, bullying, or trespassing, whatever, it would look like zero and it would look like everyone wanted to go there because this is a safe school,” Travis said. “It turned out to all be a lie because we were able to get copies of police reports and find out that a lot of stuff never got reported and nobody had any real clue how safe their school was.”
Nora Rupert was Chair of the School Board when Parkland happened. She called Travis a consummate professional.
“I found him very funny, engaging and extremely knowledgeable,” Rupert said. “What he doesn’t know, he finds out. He’s relentless in asking for information even when people are trying to shut him down.”
Travis’ reporting eventually drew retaliation measures. In December of 2018, a public relations consultant hired by the district called Travis a “skanky jerk” who was “sloppy,” “reckless” and “smells bad.”
“He handled that so gracefully,” recalls Wallman. “He was the bigger person. The best kind of people are the ones who can smile through adversity and not let the barbs get under your skin. Obviously in journalism, we have a lot of haters.”
With the anniversary approaching so too come the reminders of denial. There are people who float theories that Parkland was staged and carried out by “crisis actors.” These conspiracy theorists are part of the QAnon cult, promoted by the likes of newly elected Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. A video recently surfaced showing Greene harassing Parkland survivor David Hogg outside the U.S. Capitol building. Greene has also called Hogg, now 20, a “coward,” “idiot” and “trained dog.”
“It’s horrible,” Travis said. “I covered a professor at FAU who was a Sandy Hook denier. To see somebody do that really angers me because it totally disregards the pain and the grief that so many people are having to go through. There’s nothing fake about what happened. These people clearly died. I don’t understand why they do that. I don’t know what they get out of it. It just seems like a mental illness when people start to say stuff like that.”
Parkland, Travis said, was a wake-up call for the system and some of the participants, like Hogg, Emma Gonzalez and Fred Guttenberg, have become well-known advocates for gun control and red flag laws.
The tragedy also propelled conservative figures like Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed, into the national spotlight and led to the election of two current board members — Debbi Hixon and Lori Alhadeff — who lost family members in the shooting.
“It turned a sleepy community into a catalyst for action,” Travis said.
In the aftermath, when most of the national and international media left, it was up to local reporters to stay with the story and hold those in power accountable.
“The Sun Sentinel put in a lot of time, experience and manpower,” said Rupert. “I don’t know how they did it because they were certainly getting quite thin. It was truly a remarkable effort by the Sun Sentinel and for Scott because he led their reporting.”
As for his future, Travis said he misses the newsroom. The COVID-19 pandemic required the Sun Sentinel to go remote. Travis, 50, is single and lives in Delray Beach. He enjoys singing karaoke, performing in community theatre and is occasionally mistaken on Twitter for the hip-hop rapper Travis Scott.
“It’s a little lonely, we've been remote since the pandemic,” he said. “I like not having to dress up and work from my couch, miss being around other reporters and collaboration that goes on and the camaraderie that goes on. Reporters are sort of my people, probably more so than gay people are. Being a journalist is in my DNA.”
Ironically, the Parkland school is named in honor of award-winning journalist, conservationist and woman’s suffrage advocate Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
“I think it’s important to remember that as journalists we’re human too and we feel hurt and suffering too,” Travis said.