Student newspapers often find themselves having to cover difficult topics on campus, ranging from athletes breaking rules to administrators misbehaving. The Simpsonian staff at Simpson College in Iowa, however, found itself chasing a story unlike any other I’ve seen in decades of student media work: A faculty member, assistant professor of economics Gowun Park, was arrested on suspicion of murder and kidnapping:
According to court documents, Park admitted to binding her husband to a chair with a rope, and his hands and feet with zip ties earlier that day.
Police say she duct taped a towel over his eyes and stuffed clothing in Nam’s mouth to prevent him from yelling.
Park did not release Nam from his chair, even though he requested to be untied, according to police.
“Nam was confined to a room and bound to a chair, unable to freely move about and free himself, ultimately leading to his death,” court documents said.
Editor in chief Gunnar Davis, a senior at Simpson College, majoring in multimedia communications with a minor in sports communication, was responsible for writing the story. He played football all four years and was a starting offensive lineman for the Storm while also engaging in his passion for sports writing. After a term as a sports editor during his junior year, he received an offer to run the paper as the editor in chief this year.
Davis said in an email interview that advisers Brian Steffen and Mark Siebert tipped him off that something strange was happening on campus.
“Professor Steffen actually keyed me in about cops being in the basement of McNeill Hall, the same place as Gowun Park’s office,” Davis said. “He told me to keep an eye on the West Des Moines police department’s Facebook page early in the afternoon. Not long after, the page posted the mugshot of our professor with her criminal accusations. From there, he kind of let me do my own thing until more news updates broke.”
Although multiple state outlets were on the story, Davis said he was able to add more depth and value to The Simpsonian’s coverage because he was on the ground in Indianola.
“Because I knew who she was, we were the one who broke the news that she was a professor at Simpson College,” he said. “Because I was on the campus and they weren’t, I had the advantage of finding out things about her work at Simpson, the administration’s response and what type of things related to her arrest were going on here.
“We broke the news about her employment here. We broke the news that cops were on the campus, searching through her office. We broke the news of our interim president’s blanket statement. We broke the news of her staff profile page being taken down on Simpson’s website. These are all things that took time and sources.”
During his reporting, Davis said he found that the campus community of about 1,300 people was in shock over the arrest and that multiple found it too difficult to discuss.
“I never met Ms. Park, so it was still a bit distant to me,” he said. “When I went and talked to faculty members and students that knew her, they were so stunned. Many of them did not want to talk to me. They would tell me things off record, and then tell me not to use it. I had a friend who was her advisee who had to leave campus for a couple days because he was so upset about it.”
“I used to be really nervous and worry a lot about what others thought of me and my work,” he added. “It’s your job to do outstanding reporting, regardless of what others think. News is news, and sometimes it can be upsetting to others. The only time I am hurt about comments about me and my work is if I don’t get the facts straight.”
Davis said the paper plans to cover Park’s first court appearance on Friday and to also keep up with the story as it continues to develop. Although the situation forced him to do things he had never done before, Davis said he and his staff were motivated by the larger needs of the community.
“When I went home and finally sat down and took the whole situation in, I kind of realized how crazy everything I did was in that day,” he said. “Talking with multiple people who didn’t want to talk to me about an incident so extreme is something that most people wouldn’t want to do — myself included. But, being confident in knowing who you are and what your work is for is important. Your work is important for the community. It matters. Be confident.”