Covering a crime close to home requires both calm professionalism and compassion, said reporters who worked on the case of Michaela “Mickey” Shunick, a murdered student from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
“Compassion goes a long way,” said Jim Hummel, evening anchor of KATC-TV3, Lafayette. “You do get close to people in covering anything. You know them. You’ll be talking to them every day. But at the end of the day, you do have a job to do.”
Five journalists met Friday (Feb.21) to participate in the panel, “The crime Beat: A case study of the 2012 Mickey Shunick murder.” “Then panel was part of the Southeast Journalism Conference hosted by UL.
When Shunick went missing May 19, 2012, the ensuing investigation resulted in national media attention.
“Just the thought that something could have happened to her at the hands of someone else really shook up the city and community, because we’ve never had a case like that,” said Jason Brown, former police reporter at The Advocate.
For Caroline Balchunas, a reporter at KLFY –TV 10, Lafayette, the story broke during her first year working as a journalist. Soon she built a relationship with Shunick’s family, growing to love and care for them, Balchunas said.
Balchunas had to speak with the family almost every day during the investigation. Nearly two years after the case, she still speaks to them “all the time,” she said.
“There were nights when I did go home and cry,” Balchunas said. “ I just couldn’t help it. I was very emotionally connected.”
That connection meant that when Shunick’s body was found three months after her disappearance, Balchunas could approach the family.
Rumors abounded during the case, even resulting in one news source blaming a man for the crime- a man proved to be innocent when Brandon Scott Lavergne convicted for the kidnapping and murder of Shunick.
“There’s always that race to be first,” Balchunas said. “And , oh my gosh, it’s just so tiring and it gets really ridiculous at times. But just remember, the public does not care who is first. The public cares who is right.”
Working responsibly in the media meant wading through rumors, fact-checking everything and choosing not to use anonymous sources, said Claire Taylor, senior reporter at The Daily Advertiser.
Hummel’s news source once faced backlash for writing an article about wasted donations to Shunick’s search party. But a journalist’s job is often to ask hard questions, even unpopular ones, Hummel said.
For Elizabeth Rose, former editor-in-chief of UL’s school newspaper, The Vermillion, covering Shunick’s story meant finding a difficult balance when the victim was a fellow student.
Upon learning of Shunick’s disappearance, Rose went to hang up fliers. Once finished, she wrote the story.
“From then on it was very difficult for us to distinguish what we were supposed to do as friends and what we were supposed to do as reporters,” said Rose.
Emily West, editor-in-chief of Middle Tennessee State University’s (MTSU) student newspaper, Sidelines, questioned Rose after the panel on how student reporters corresponded with the police.
A MTSU student was murdered recently, and her paper is now struggling with writing about the unconcluded investigation, West said.
“ It’s good to see that media is compassionate and that it is OK to have a heart and be a human,” West said afterward. “Because I think we’re human first and journalists second.”
Other panels discussed photography, the health beat and the political beat.
During the political panel Norman Robinson, senior anchor of WDSU-TV, New Orleans, and former White House correspondent, lamented the state of today’s media, saying journalists ought to “eat politicians for lunch” even as they build up relationships with sources.
“Make friends with the chauffeur,” Robinson told students. “Make friends with these people. It’s all about human contact, relationships. That’s how information is gathered, through the kind of relationships you have with people you happen to meet.”
A panel of political experts and reporters discussed the upcoming election season and the next presidential election and offered advice to young journalists who attended this year’s SEJC conference’s political panel, The Political Beat: Gearing up for the 2014 Elections.
The panel consisted of: Norman Robinson, a former White House correspondent for CBS and the senior anchor for its New Orleans affiliate, WDSU; Pearson Cross, Ph.D., head of the University of Louisiana Lafayette political science department and consultant for KATC-TV3 in Lafayette; and Bernie Pinsonat, director of Southern Media and Opinion Research, a polling and consulting firm used by businesses and politicians.
“Talk about a political dynasty!” Pinsonat exclaimed, when asked about Hillary Clinton’s chances in the next election. “Certainly she’s the Democratic frontrunner, but she carries a lot of baggage.”
Cross stated that Clinton won’t “believe in her own invincibility” this time around and will be less likely to get knocked out by a young upstart, like now-President Barack Obama, who unexpectedly beat her in 2008. Cross also noted that her experience as secretary of state, despite the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, would be an overall positive to her résumé.
“(She) has a kind of political swagger that I think is going to be tough to beat, and she knows it,” agreed Robinson. “She’s well aware of how to handle herself. I would not want to be the person on the other side in a political fight with her.”
The panel discussed another female Democrat facing a fierce standoff with Republican candidates and a dwindling white Democrat support base in Louisiana and the rest of the South.
“(Mary Landrieu, D-La.,) is an incumbent Democratic U.S. senator,” began Pinsonat, discussing the 2014 U.S. Senate elections. “She’s running for re-election. She’s been around in Louisiana for a while. Her name is somewhat of a political dynasty. She’s absolutely one of the most popular elected officials in Louisiana.”
However, Pinsonat said although the Landrieu name carries a lot of weight in Louisiana politics, the senator will face some tough opposition this election from Republicans.
“She has challengers,” he continued. “(U.S. Rep.) Bill Cassidy, (R-La.), from Baton Rouge got his start as a state senator. He then went from there to become the congressman from the 6th District. He has a base, so I consider him the most viable candidate.”
Pinsonat also noted there were two other Republicans, State Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington, and Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel.
“There’s some numbers that indicate things may not go so well for Mary Landrieu in 2014,” said Cross. “White Democrats in Louisiana are in short supply. Over the last six years, the number of white Democrats has dropped from over 700,000 down to a minority. The Democratic Party now has a majority of African Americans; white registration numbers are plummeting. It’s unclear if Mary Landrieu can put together a majority of the state, given, particularly, her most crucial vote for Obamacare, which is going to be the signal issue.”
The panel also addressed topics that college-aged journalists should be keeping an eye on in the upcoming years and gave advice on how to get those stories. Cross said he believed the steady advance of same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana would be two of the most pressing matters.
“Ten years ago, if you had told me we’d be in this position, I would’ve asked if you were smoking some of that marijuana,” he joked. “Both of these issues have come out of nowhere like “Gang Busters,” and they’re sweeping the country.”
Robinson advised the students not to stay in their newsrooms, but to get out in the world and be where the story is. He also noted the importance of familiarizing with potential stories by calling and speaking with candidates, their handlers and even their chauffeurs.
“Make friends with these people because it’s all about what?” he asked. “Human contact. Relationships. That’s how information is gathered. Don’t be a wallflower. The question is, how curious are you, and how far are you willing to go to satiate that curiosity?”
The panelists also warned the young journalists not take it easy on politicians.
“Every American is counting on members of the press to ask those tough questions and hold those people’s feet to the fire,” said Cross. “Things that politicians say are taken at face value. Anytime a politician opens his mouth, he’s lying. Politicians don’t get elected for telling the truth; they get elected for telling the truth as it appeals to a certain part of the electorate.”
Robinson agreed in a rousing call to action that received applause from the audience.
“When I started out, politicians were open game anytime for any question anywhere,” he said. “You didn’t have to alert them you were coming. They worked for us! What’s this crap, ‘You gotta make an appointment?’ No! We are the Fourth Estate. Our job is to inform the public.
“I think we’re too nice to them,” Robinson continued. “My God! We get these press releases and then we mouth what they say as if we’re conduits for their propaganda. I see us today as a bunch of wusses. All this harangue about Snowden; he was doing what he was supposed to: shining a light where it needed to be shined. And that’s what you all should be doing as members of the press.”
Addressing the field world of medical journalism, experts at the 2014 SEJC in Lafayette discussed the pitfalls of social media, and keeping the public informed of growing medical problems such as mental illness among college students.
“I think there’s more rumors out there now more than ever,” said Dr. Tina Stefanski, M.D., regional director of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, and one of the three panelists. “Outlets like Facebook and Twitter perpetuate more bad information because anybody can just say anything and their friends will believe it. Nobody verifies anything anymore.”
Alongside Stefanski on “The Neglected Health Beat: Filling a Vital Public Need” panel were Dr. Chris Hayes, M.D., medical director for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette student health services, and Elizabeth Hill, a health and medical reporter for KATC-TV3 in Lafayette.
“Take all your medical news with a grain of salt,” Hayes warned during the 75-minute session. “It’s extremely important you do your own homework and consult not just your medical professional, but maybe two or three others.”
Hayes advised members of the audience to heed only the information from trusted sources like the National Institutes of Health, a state department of health or a medical expert.
“Be mindful,” Hayes warned. “Not everyone with the title of ‘M.D.’ behind their name is legit. There are some people out there who will say or do whatever it takes to sell a product they’re endorsing, or have upper-level pressure to push the latest and greatest thing. It can be tricky to know the difference.”
Hill said medical reporters have a responsibility to be vigilant and cautious with handling their information.
“If you report something wrong, that’s totally on you as the reporter,” she said. “Make sure you do your homework before you meet the interviewee. Make sure you understand the topic before the interview. That way, if that person tells you something you know is wrong, you can correct them or realize, ‘Hey, this person has another agenda here.’”
When the topic turned to medical issues most severely afflicting the college-age populace, Hayes said the traditional sexually transmitted diseases have “taken a back seat to mental illness.”
“In the past, the easy answer was, of course, STDs,” Hayes said. “What I’m seeing more of now is a greater willingness to discuss, and understanding of, these problems by young people. In the past, there was moral baggage or misconstrued societal beliefs that came along with admitting you had a mental problem. You guys are stressed! There’s nothing wrong with admitting that something isn’t quite right.”
Stefanksi elaborated on Hayes’ point, and said entities like universities are hesitant to divulge cases of mental illness on their campuses because it may harm their reputations.
“They don’t want to bring it to the front,” she said. “Students and parents looking at these schools kind of expect to encounter sexually transmitted diseases. When you start throwing out words like ‘depression,’ or ‘suicide,’ they step back and re-evaluate you. They (universities) don’t want to start a controversy.”
Hill said she keeps potential controversies and health scares in mind when reporting, and always considers how her story may affect her audience.
“It’s all in how you write the story,” she said. “Sometimes your audience needs to be made aware of how serious a problem really is. You have to toe that line between warning them and scaring them. If a medical professional is not panicked about a problem, there’s no reason for the audience to be either.”
Stefanksi closed by urging potential health reporters to understand the power they wield in their coverage of the medical field.
“My challenge is that I can only reach one person at a time,” she said. “You guys can reach people on a national scale. Be careful how you handle that information, but take advantage of it as well and seize the opportunity.”
“You don’t have to be an environmental journalist to cover the environment.”
This was the first piece of advice Mark Schleifstein, the environmental writer for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, gave zealous students during the environmental panel at this year’s annual SEJC convention, summing up the whole panel before it even really started.
The environmental panel focused on a major news story of 2010: the BP oil spill. The panel included Scheifstein; Brian Schwaner, Associated Press bureau chief in New Orleans; Debbie Elliot, NPR News; and was moderated by Mike Maher, Ph.D., head of the UL Lafayette communication department. The three panelists shared their adventures on covering such a momentous story to the room of around 60 young college students and their professors.
All three testified to having to learn on the go about what it takes to cover the environment. Not only that, but the BP oil spill was a disaster that had no equal since no other spill has released such a large amount of oil.
“Early on, this was such a reporting adventure,” said Elliot. “It was this horrible tragedy, this explosion, something that we were used to, but then all of a sudden there was more to it.”
Schwaner described the oil spill as not only being an environmental issue, but also a political and economic issue as well. The implications of this disaster continued to grow and grow. Elliot wrote a total of 136 stories on this one subject.
Looking back, Schwaner said he asked, “How could this not be a story that was going to go on for a decade? This is a continuing people story.”
After living through something so tremendous in their careers, the panelists offered advice on how to find proper sources, understand what your story is, find different angles of a story (the oil spill had several) and how the decline of the number of journalists makes each new case a learning experience. The panelists agreed they became a something resembling oil experts only after the spill occurred. Most of those who worked with them on the stories now work at a different organization covering different topics.
“That’s one of the key problems for the industry as a whole, is recognizing there will be changes and understanding some of this stuff, even as you’re moving into this new world of trying to get faster, shorter stories, that there have to be people who have the knowledge and the ability of understanding how to do the wilder kind of work as well,” said Schleifstein.
Around half of the 75-minute discussion revolved around student questions about the best way to write an environmental story. Students gained advice on uncovering sources’ intentions and how to seek out the right people to ask. They were told the importance of discovering what exactly their story is about and conducting the necessary research to write that story.
“People want to be around the big story,” said Schwaner. “It’s like a magnet. Even when you’ve taken hits on resources, the folks who still want to be there will do everything they can to get it. And that’s exactly what happened.”
And it isn’t just the national stories that matter. The panelists advised students to go out into their own communities to discover what environmental issues are important.
The panel ended with a high note, with advice that every journalist needs to know. The final topic of the morning was keeping stories fresh after covering them for extensive amounts of time.
“Fabulous storytelling,” said Elliot. “Talk about real human people who are living with the effect. Go out on the water with the scientist and discover how they go about finding out what they find out. That could be said for any subject. You find the right subject, the right material and you tell a great story.”
The next generation of wannabe entertainment gathered during the 2014 SEJC convention at UL Lafayette to hear advice from the pros of the entertainment field during the culture panel, discussing everything from why media are still vital for event success to friendships with the stars.
“The Culture Beat: Consumers Still Crave Entertainment” panel included Dominick Cross, an entertainment writer for The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, and KRVS-FM “Zydeco Stomp” radio host Herman Fuselier, who is also the food and culture editor for The Daily Advertiser.
“What we cover can be entertaining and hard news at the same time,” Fuselier said in response to a question posed by his boss, Cindy McCurry-Ross, editor of The Daily Advertiser who was in the audience.
When it comes to celebrities, Fuselier and Cross are no amateurs, and their advice about interacting with the A-list could help future journalists know where to draw the line between friendship and stardom.
“You’re not one of them,” Cross said, using a movie he knew to reference handling celebrities. “You’re a reporter. They’ll want you when they need you, but you’re not them. Keep that in mind when you start interviewing stars. They’re going to make you feel warm and fuzzy because that’s what they do.
“Get to know the people behind the stars, because those are the people who will get you access to the stars,” Fuselier added. “Don’t forget about those people.”
With countless areas in entertainment, choosing one could be daunting to graduating college students, but Fuselier had advice for them.
“Find your niche in the entertainment world, because it’s so broad, and there are so many things you can cover,” he said. “When we tell people we cover entertainment, the first question is, ‘What stars do you know?’ A lot of stars come here, but we concentrate on the local artists. You can help sell their stories.
“That’s what I challenge you to do,” he continued. “Find an area you’re really interested in, and that you think you can excel in, because as an entertainment person you’re going to cover everything from the circus to the symphony, but if there is something you can concentrate on and become known for, it’ll really help you a lot in the long run.”
Cross described how important it is to conduct research before going into any sort of interview so that the same dull questions won’t be asked for the umpteenth time. He explained how knowing about an intended subject and digging into the celebrity’s past may turn up interesting tidbits that can be locally related even if it’s a big-time celeb.
“Know your topic,” he emphasized. “Come up with some good questions so you can try to have something different from what everyone else has done. Like, ‘How long you been in music?’ There are certain things you just don’t need to ask. Listen to the music, read some stories about them and then think about what you’d want to know, because what you want to know is what the reader wants to know.
“That’s what you’re there for,” Cross continued. “You’re the go-between. You’re their messenger.”
Despite all the social media and digital technology, Fuselier stands by using the written word to spread a message.
“We do so many other things now (referring to social media), but don’t forget about the written word,” Fuselier advised. “The king’s English still counts when you can tell a story and communicate proper grammar and punctuation. It goes a long way, and those writing skills can open other doors for you. Along with the technology, you still have to be able to write.”
Reporting on issues pertaining to education and the school board is still as important as ever, as five local journalists explained during the panel called “The School Beat: Common Core, Uncommon Scandals” at the SEJC convention on Feb. 22.
The 70-minute long discussion included subjects such as Common Core and the outrage that followed; a controversy involving the implementation of the voucher program that was all but ignored; how a reporter working on a school-related article should develop his or her sources; and a $5,000 bribery scandal involving two St. Landry Parish, La. School Board members.
The panel was composed of Zane Hill, the school board reporter for the Opelousas Daily World; Heather Miller, the former education writer for the Daily Iberian; Tina Macías, the investigative reporter for KATC-TV3; Marsha Sills, the education reporter for The Advocate who has covered the Lafayette Parish School Board for the past five years; and Barbara Leader, the senior writer for The News-Star in Monroe, La., who covers K-12 beat.
“The school beat is a little bit different from any other beat. It’s not like you can just walk on to a campus and go start talking to people,” said Sills, who covered the school board for the past five years. “You have to develop sources, and one way to do that is to go to an academic pep rally or a science fair, and meet the teachers and parents. You never know when that is going to turn into the biggest story.”
Sills added that it is important to remain objective and to get other voices for the story. There has also been an increase in the number of attendees of school board meetings, which can be useful in finding parents or teachers with differing perspectives on a subject. She admitted that she did not expect school and education to be as newsworthy as she first thought.
Hill recalled that not long after he started working at the Opelousas Daily World in September 2012, he had to report the St. Landry Parish School Board bribery scandal involving Quincy Richard, Sr. and John Miller, who have solicited bribes for votes for superintendent candidate Joseph Cassimere, which did not sit well with him.
“The story was as soon as this guy threw his hat in the ring, they started meeting with him and saying ‘it’s going to take a lot more than your record to get in there,’” he explained. “So what does he do? He goes to the FBI, had meetings with him, and they busted them.”
The case dragged on for a while, with elections postponed a number of times, but it was not that long after until Hill remembered an important detail about Richard, and it took a story a couple of months later about a local city council member who stepped down because of his history as a convicted felon to jog his memory.
“Right around that time, I remembered ‘wait a minute. One of these school board members is a convicted felon.’ I wondered if he had a governor’s pardon, because if he had one of those, he would be OK,” he added. “Well, he didn’t, so I threw that in the Sunday paper in March or in May, so he had that going for him.”
Leader said the most memorable story she did was about the voucher program and how a small church in Ruston was assigned the largest number of students in the entire state through the program. She grew suspicious of it, so when she saw that there was hardly anything there, she learned from the school’s president that there will be a school built from the state’s tax dollars. As Leader worked on the story, she uncovered something that the media had barely touched on.
“What I discovered was that they had not visited any of these schools that they approved for the voucher program,” she said. “They were so eager to implement the governor’s (Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s) initiative that they had not gone to these schools, so they were unwilling to admit that they hadn’t gone to them.”
Her story attracted a great amount of attention, enough so that during a legislative session, each member of the Senate Education Committee had a copy of it and asked Louisiana School Superintendent John White questions about it, which put him on the spot. Leader said this made her incredibly nervous, but it also resulted in other cities investigating their voucher schools and learning that the state also did not do much for them, allowing them to hold it accountable for doing so.
“I think the bigger papers in the state kind of failed in a larger sense than a lot of the smaller papers,” added Miller, citing other scandals. “There were very few people in the state taking it out, aside from the press releases. There were so many near lawsuits from people that were underreported at the time.”
The Common Core State Standards had also been a hot-button issue for months, with parents and teachers taking sides. The panelists stressed about how it is important to find teachers and parents who are either for or against it to provide objective coverage involving both sides.
“Back in May, we did a story called ‘Common Core for the Common Man,’ and tried to break it down into the easiest way for people to understand,” said Macías. “One of the things we did during that time was that we went to the State Department and asked them for someone, and they kept saying to go to John White. We basically completely bypassed them and had to go and find teachers, parents and others who actually understood the legislation.”
“I’m a firm believer in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment: there’s always a moment that’s the best and that’s why still photography is, I think hands-down, far superior,” declared Philip Gould, independent photographer and author of numerous photography books based on Louisiana.
More than 100 students, advisers and photography enthusiasts attended a photography panel held at the 2014 SEJC Communication Conference, hosted by UL Lafayette, where the main discussion was “Is Still Photography Still Important?,” in a technology-driven media where video is increasingly more accepted.
Along with Gould, the panel included Robin May, photo editor at The Independent in Lafayette; Dominick Cross, entertainment reporter and videographer; and staff photographer Leslie Westbrook, both from The Daily Advertiser.
“It takes both in today’s newspaper industry,” stated Cross. “We’re in transition right now. The business is in total transition.
“I mean, because it’s our job to get the word out to people,” Cross continued, “to get information to people so they can make proper decisions down the line about whatever, but you know, right now, it’s still kind of crazy.”
The panelists each discussed past examples of their work and their opinions over whether they preferred shooting stills or video. Cross presented an interview he conducted with Cajun and zydeco musician Cedric Watson along with a personal video he shot during an ice storm in January.
Westbrook discussed his work from the November abduction of 29-year-old Bethany Arceneaux, who was taken by her estranged boyfriend Scott Thomas, also 29. Arceneaux was found three days later by her family and police in an abandoned house in the town of Duson. Thomas was shot and killed by several members of Arceneaux’s family. No charges were filed against them.
“I thought it was gonna be a done assignment. I thought that was gonna be the best shot [of Arceneaux’s family searching] I was gonna get,” stated Westbrook.
Westbrook recalled a neighbor close to the family stated there was a house that was not checked yet. Westbrook described how he and Arceneaux’s family approached the house and heard gunshots. Unbeknownst to Westbrook at the time, the bullets were going toward the house. He recalled people shouting that Arceneaux was in the house. After a short standoff, her family retrieved her from the house.
During the entire search, Westbrook took stills and video. A picture of Arceneaux, terrified and bloodied, being carried to a car by her uncle, was published on the front page of The Daily Advertiser and carried nationally by the Associated Press. It created an issue of whether it was right to publish the photo so soon.
“There was a lot of drama over that,” Westbrook stated. “The issue about this photo was whether or not we should be publishing a picture of this lady at her most vulnerable. Of course, I mean, to me, it’s about domestic violence issue. To me, it’s a beautiful photo.
“At first, I think they were a little bit upset,” Westbrook said of Arceneaux’s family’s reaction to the published photo, of course, it was all very raw and fresh, but one of our sports reporters is a member of the family and after talking to him about it, I think they accepted it.”
In the end, the entire panel seemed to agree that although shooting video is a more acceptable way of sharing content, still photography can still be a great way to tell a story.
“I think there is some power in video and it’s also instilled in still photography,” Cross stated. “Video and photos can work together. It can be done.”