The Palms is a popular bar near Northwest Missouri State University that is usually jammed with students both inside and out. On weekends, the outdoor bar area has students packed shoulder to shoulder as they enjoy the atmosphere of college life.
On Jan. 7, The Palms became the site of a chaotic and deadly night when 22-year-old Alex Catterson slammed his pickup truck into the entrance of the building, killing sophomore Morgan McCoy.
“With the initial coverage of this story, we decided to cover the incident as breaking news and just tried to piece together a story that told what happened,” Darcie Dujakovich, the editor in chief for the Northwest Missourian, said. “Many college students were in the bar the night of the incident and left not knowing someone had died and that guided how we covered this story. We wanted to get the most important details out as quickly as possible: the death, her name, his name, location, how he crashed and any other injuries.
Shortly after, we did a feature piece on Morgan talking about her involvement on campus, hearing from friends and not necessarily focusing on her death but the impact her life had on the people around her, as we do with every student death we see at Northwest.”
What made this situation different was the importance of following the criminal aspects of the case, she said. Catterson had a blood-alcohol content of nearly three times the legal limit, officials said, and he would face felony charges associated with McCoy’s death.
“We had this trial on our radar for months and started planning for it pretty early out,” campus news editor Rachel Adamson said. “We knew we needed someone in the courtroom at all times to be able to accurately relay the information back to our readers. Darcie, our managing editor Joe Andrews and I all agreed we would need a story each day detailing what happened and Tweets throughout the day. ”
The newsroom often had multiple reporters at the courthouse during the day, capturing not just the major elements of the case, but also the details that brought clarity and intensity to their work.
“We knew we wanted to have coverage of this every day because it was something that shook our campus to the core, and people wanted to know what was happening,” Dujakovich said. “We felt as if we needed to provide them with that information.
The publication did daily work that provided some of the most painful details of the event, ranging from witness accounts of the crash to the recounting of Catterson’s often-tasteless interactions with police during his arrest.
“The hardest part of the trial to cover was the environment of the courtroom,” Adamson said. “There were heavy emotions coming from both sides of the gallery throughout the case. During the first couple days of the trial, graphic evidence and testimonies were shared and I remember thinking there was no way I was going to be able to sit through that for the rest of the week but I did.”
After a week-long trial, the jury found Catterson guilty of a Class B felony in causing McCoy’s death. Working on the trial still has an impact on the publication’s staff members, even after they finished their work, Dujakovich said.
“I found this coverage extremely hard to deal with and am still dealing with the effects it had on me,” she said. “Just emotionally, I have never covered something like this before. We were able to see body camera footage of CPR performed on Morgan’s lifeless body, we were able to hear the screams of her friends as they saw her being carried out on a stretcher assumed dead, we heard in gruesome detail about the puddle of blood she laid in and how her leg had been amputated. The details were and still are hard to swallow. However, being in the same room as Morgan’s family and watching those people relive her death six days in a row as I take notes about their tears for a story felt heartless – but it was not, people wanted these stories.”
The most difficult and yet rewarding decision in the coverage was to rely heavily on description and narrative, the editors both said. This provided the readers with a sense that they were watching the trial as well, and gave them a sense of how the hearing was unfolding from an emotional point of view.
“I never thought I was capable of illustrating a story and making readers feel like they were actually there,” Adamson said. “There had been countless times when I had read Time magazine and The New Yorker and thought, ‘Wow, if I could just write like that.’ But while covering this trial, I put aside trying to write like someone else and instead I just started writing and didn’t stop until all my thoughts were typed out. While writing, I kept circling back to ask myself, ‘How did it feel?’ That’s what kept me writing, that’s how we told the story – how did it feel?”
“I learned the importance of details in news writing,” Dujakovich added. “I feel like so often, especially as news reporters, we feel as if it is so cut and dry. Here are the facts, here are some words people said, and that is it. The details in these stories really made a difference. I never used detail in this way before and moving forward I do not think I will ever neglect to use detail as we did here, it made the story compelling and kept people coming back.”
Adamson said she also learned the value of telling the story as it happens so that the facts don’t get lost within the writing of the emotion.
“I walked into that courtroom day one of the trial with a lot of pre-conceived ideas of what I had thought happened,” she said. “I was quickly reminded through evidence that was presented that I needed to keep an open mind. That was the first lesson of many that covering this trial taught me.”
Dujakovich said although the coverage was difficult, she felt that she served her readers well and gave them a strong look at an important event.
“I made my decisions based on what I thought the readers would want to hear most,” Dujakovich said. “I tried to make sure they could picture the courtroom and the people in it. I wanted them to be able to see and hear what I saw and heard. I mean, the reader should always be top priority, but it is easy to write and forget about them. This really brought me back to why I decided to be a journalist in the first place.”