Reporters get ethics, law wrong in vacated murder sentence

Editor’s note: This is a preview of a story that appears in the winter 2014 print edition of Gateway Journalism Review.

When Ryan Ferguson was released from prison Nov. 12 where he had been serving time for the murder of a newspaper sports editor, television journalists from across the country swooped down on Columbia, Mo., home of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism.

The big story provided a teaching moment for one professor, concerned about accuracy, media ethics and the appearance of objectivity. A lesson was to be learned, too, about convergence, and how an event can be transformed or amplified by the various forms of media buzzing around it.

Ferguson’s release prompted live television coverage that showed reporters hugging members of his family, Internet postings and blog entries containing inaccuracies, and Twitter-fed debates over whether journalists should be cheerleaders. On national television, a network legal affairs correspondent misinterpreted a Missouri court opinion.

“I was appalled really at the media circus that went on after Ryan was released,” said Jim Robertson, managing editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. “It just made me feel cynical about our profession.”

Ferguson spent nearly 10 years behind bars for the murder of Kent Heitholt, a Tribune sports editor who was found strangled and beaten in the newspaper’s parking lot on Nov. 1, 2001.

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