Reporters explain how they covered Shunick murder in Lafayette

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.”

*This story won first place in the onsite competition newswriting category.