Emotional Toll of Execution Coverage

EDITOR’S NOTE: Iowa State alumna Danielle Ferguson, watchdog reporter for Argus Media, explains the after-effects of execution coverage, a topic journalists seldom address. In October 2018, she was one of three reporters to witness the execution of Rodney Berget. The video below includes her perceptions, which she shared shortly afterward with Michael Bugeja’s media ethics classes. This year, she wrote about the Charles Rhines’ execution, which she did not witness but nevertheless experienced. Once again Ferguson agreed to share her personal story with Dr. Bugeja’s students studying “evil and social justice.” Ferguson’s exemplary professionalism is testament to the dedication of journalists reporting in the public’s interest.

By Danielle Ferguson

Last year, I was a media witness to the execution of Rodney Berget. I spent a few weeks mentally preparing myself for watching the state of South Dakota kill someone. I was incredibly nervous, but, surprisingly, didn’t experience many noticeable after-effects. The most notable was that I associated the chair he was strapped into to a dentist’s chair, and went to the dentist a few weeks after the execution and was hesitant to sit down.

This year, I spent about a month previewing Charles’ Rhines execution, reminding the public about the crime for which he was to be put to death. I wasn’t a media witness. South Dakota Dept. of Corrections policy says that a member of the AP and a member of the media from the town in which the crime happened are witnesses. This crime didn’t occur in Sioux Falls.

This year, because I wasn’t a media witness, I felt that I didn’t have to mentally prepare. I thought, “It’s another criminal justice report. Just report what happens.”

I spent weeks reading about every death penalty case to recount the death penalty’s history in our state. I spent days reading court documents about Charles Rhines’ multiple appeals: a claim of jury bias because of anti-gay comments made during his 1993 trial, a desire to choose the drug by which he was to be killed and a claim that he never got a real shot at clemency. I spoke with national experts and local experts. I ended up with about 15 bylines for this execution.

I spent 14 hours at the S.D. State Penitentiary Monday, Nov. 4. Rhines’ had three U.S. Supreme Court appeals (Berget had just one), and the execution originally scheduled for 1:30 p.m. didn’t occur until about 7:30 p.m. (Click here for a synopsis of all three appeals.)

I spent all day constantly refreshing the U.S. Supreme Court page, racing against the other media in the penitentiary room to try and be the first to provide an update. We spoke with protesters. It was a long day.

I broke when I read Rhines’ last meal.

  • Fried chicken
  • Cantaloupe or musk melon
  • Lefse, with butter
  • Yogurt (strawberry and cherry)
  • Black licorice
  • Cookies and cream ice cream
  • Root beer
  • Coffee with cream and sugar

There is something so deeply humanizing about someone’s choice for a last meal. Lefse is a Norwegian staple, basically a potato pancake. It’s something my family makes from scratch every Thanksgiving. I had to briefly leave the room when I saw that list.

After speaking with the family of the victim, 22-year-old Donnivan Schaeffer, I surprisingly felt better. They had released their anger years ago, and hearing their attitude of gratefulness for the time they got with Donnivan was touching. I spoke with them at length after the execution. They responded to Rhines’ last words:

“Ed and Peggy Schaeffer, I forgive you for your anger and hatred toward me. I pray to God that he forgives you for your anger and hatred toward me.”

Peggy shook her head in disbelief. “He forgives us?” she said. “Isn’t that something.” And then she returned to telling everyone about how amazing her son was.

I had nightmares for about a week after this execution. I had dreams Rhines and other killers I have written about found me in my apartment and killed me the way they killed their victims. In my dreams, Rhines said he killed me because of all the stories I wrote about him (in much more violent terms). I would wake myself up every night because I was screaming.

I was surprised at my reaction. That I could cry at the death of this man, yet at the same time fear him for the crime he committed.

I’ve started seeing a counselor, who has talked with me about moral injury, and the effects I experience constantly looking for, reading about and reporting on that are conflicting to my personal moral standards. I personally am against rape and murder, and the fact I research, write about and speak with survivors on a regular basis does damage to my conscience. It’s been interesting to learn about and consider it when I’m reporting.

This execution impacted me more so than Berget’s. That may be because I have more knowledge of the criminal justice system in general and more experience reporting on the death penalty. It may be because multiple national experts said Rhines’ death was unconstitutional, and they were appalled the state of South Dakota would kill someone with a conviction that included jury comments of anti-gay bias.

In all, I feel this experience has put a greater weight to my job overall. Rhines’ case could be instrumental in future death penalty arguments, and I can only hope we documented this event as accurately and wholly as possible.


From Michael Bugeja’s Lecture on “Evil and Social Justice”:

Reporters who cover executions typically may express a variety of emotions, including crying or becoming violently nauseated. They can suffer short-term psychological trauma. Emotional detachment, preferred by most reporters, may lead to PTSD. Reporters who cover executions should be given down-time, typically a week off, to process what they experienced and should be encouraged to see counseling for any after-effects. Finally, they should take advantage of resources by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Teaching Assistant Shares His DACA Story

This month the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments about DACA, otherwise known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a government policy that protects undocumented people from deportation. Author Michael Bugeja’s graduate teaching assistant, Hugo Bolaños, has a personal interest in the outcome and explains that below to U.S. students.

By Hugo Bolaños

As you all know, we have been covering some very key topics in Media Ethics that you will digest and continue to use far beyond your years here at Iowa State University. The background, philosophy and history that Dr. Michael Bugeja is presenting in class will help us understand issues of diversity, equity and inclusion on deeper levels that will inform us at the workplace.

Our lectures in “Bias and Diversity” are not only important, but also necessary. That said, I want to share my story, so that you are aware of how legal decisions, such as the impending one in the U.S. Supreme Court, affects someone that you know: your teaching assistant.

The Iowa State Daily did a story about me two years ago while I was an undergrad, about DACA, and how I live with it every day. Its title is, “Every day I’m terrified .”

Here is the video that accompanied that story.

DACA, or “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” is an executive order put in place by President Barack Obama in 2012. To be eligible, undocumented recipients typically were brought to the United States as children. This must have occurred before their 16th birthday and prior to June 2007. They must be under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, and be currently in school, a high school graduate or be honorably discharged from the military. They must not have been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor or three other misdemeanors, or otherwise pose a threat to national security.

Currently, the program does not provide permanent lawful status or a path to citizenship, nor does it provide eligibility for federal welfare or student aid. DACA must be renewed every two years, with the renewal process evaluating all requirements to remain in the program.

As you may assume from reading this, I currently do have DACA status. Because I am employed at the Greenlee School, I fulfill a key DACA requirement. But I am still susceptible to changes in the law. That is why I am closely following the Supreme Court decision.

I am sharing my story here for another reason. In class, we have been discussing the 14th Amendment in Media Ethics, which reads:

14th Amendment: All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Those words are important to me. You may be a citizen of the United States and not fully appreciate your own privileges and immunities. This is why I decided to share my personal journey, which advances our class discussions and provides perspective for you.

I am not asking you to choose a political side as to the debate of so-called “dreamers.” That term has a history, too. The DREAM Act (or Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) would provide a process to give people like me, who came to the United States as children, residency status. The bipartisan bill has been introduced several times in Congress, but continues to fail.

While I do not ask you to choose a political side, I do hope for one thing in my role as graduate teaching assistant: That my story will have perhaps touched your conscience through the ethical principle of empathy, which we also study in class, putting you in my situation so that you can understand DACA on a more personal level.

Taglines Undermine Mizzou’s Diversity Effort

University of Missouri’s Athletic Department tried to promote diversity but sparked dissent with mishandled taglines. Meaning matters. Think critically, fact check and seek a second opinion before posting on social media.

The intent of the tweet was proactive, celebrating diversity by promoting aspirations of athletes. It had the opposite effect.

Included in the photo above were track athlete Arielle Mack, depicted with the slogan “I am an African American woman.” Ticket office employee Chad Jones-Hicks appeared above the statement, “I value equality.” The tagline for white gymnast Chelsey Christensen read “I am a future doctor”; the one for swimmer C.J. Kovac, proclaimed, “I am a future corporate financer (sic).”

The misspelling of “financier” indicates lack of fact-checking. Had someone analyzed each word of the post, perhaps disparities could have been avoided.  To be sure, Mack and Jones-Hicks have aspirations on par with Christensen and Kovac, but instead the emphasis there was on race.

Anything on internet can go viral, undermining intent and tainting an organization’s reputation. Clearly, Mizzou Athletics wanted to celebrate diversity and never meant the post to be misinterpreted.

According to the Washington Post, the tweet was based on a video containing this quote from Mack:  “I am an African American woman, a sister, a daughter, a volunteer and a future physical therapist.” The tagline, of course, should have been “future physical therapist.”

The Athletic Department apologized for the tweet with another tweet containing a video upon which the errant post was based:

The video, a professional product, has much to commend it. However, the stereotypical tweet undermined that effort.

Perhaps one errant tagline could be forgiven; but in this case, there were three.

In the above video, Sprinter Caulin Graves said, “I am a brother, uncle and best of all, I am a leader [emphasis added].” Here is how he was depicted:


There is little excuse here in the depiction of African American athletes. But there are remedies. Vincent Filak, who covered the Missouri tweets in the Dynamics of Writing websitehas these recommendations:

  • Scrutinize each word of any post to guard against stereotypes.
  • Ask for a second opinion if you unsure that you are disparaging anyone.
  • Run the content by a source included in the content for his or her opinion.
  • Talk to an expert who may have insight or advice on inclusion.

Filak adds, “Even if your newsroom, your PR firm or your ad agency doesn’t have a cornucopia of diversity, you can still avoid dumb mistakes by asking for help.”

Living Media Ethics has a chapter on bias in addition to sections on equity and inclusion associated with fairness, social justice and value systems. When it comes to social media posts about diversity, take time, fact check and think critically … or risk being the target of criticism.

Create Portfolios with Media Ethics Tab

Students in Michael Bugeja’s ethics classes create digital portfolios showcasing professional work with tabs aligning their values with companies or organizations for which they hope to work.


Each portfolio contains a personal ethics code. A few students are non-majors minoring in advertising, journalism and/or public relations. Most are juniors and seniors in advertising, public relations and journalism (all platforms). Many of the portfolios dazzle and showcase talents in preparation for internships or job placement.

Each student has given permission to share his or her site, which also is public on Internet. Some graduated years ago and still maintain their portfolios, living their ethics according to tenets developed in Dr. Bugeja’s Living Media Ethics (Routledge/Taylor & Francis).

Students are encouraged to list their portfolio links on social media, especially LinkedIn.

See this video for a sample of what you will view if you click on a particular student’s portfolio:

See this instructional video on how to assemble a digital portfolio with media ethics tab:


Companies and organizations seeking interns and employers rely on students to have digital portfolios. But the biggest selling point for a prospective hire is a sense of responsibility and strong work ethic.

Take a moment to look at portfolio samples from Dr. Bugeja’s media ethics classes at Iowa State University’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication. Visit: https://myethicsclass.com/portfolios/


Fakes, Hacks, Hoaxes and Tall Tales: The State of U.S. Media in the Post-Truth Era

“Fakes, Hacks, Hoaxes and Tall Tales: The State of U.S. Media in the Post-Truth Era”–has been posted by Commonwealth Centre for Connected Learning at the University of Malta. Thanks to Alex Grech for his leadership and to the internationally known speakers who presented at the Post Truth Conference Oct. 10-11 in Valletta.

You can download the paper at the link below. My abstract:

“Since the 2016 presidential election in the United States, politics and journalism have combined to undermine reality to such extent that facts are alternative, and truth is not truth. All too often, social media are complicit in the obfuscation. This paper investigates that charge, exploring the role of 24/7 ubiquitous online access in creating a culture of lies, exposing inconvenient truths about American politics and news outlets in the post-truth era.”


Gucci Appoints Chief Diversity Officer

Gucci, facing backlash for a past blackface-appearing sweater, has hired Major League Baseball’s chief diversity officer, Renée Tirado, to head its “Changemakers Council” and help the fashion industry to become more inclusive. Below are examples of pulled products.

Renée Tirado has an extensive work history as chief diversity officer for such organizations as the United States Tennis Association, AIG, Major League Baseball and now, fashion giant Gucci.

According to Vogue, Tirado is the first such officer in the company’s 98-year history. The above $890 sweater was the object of a viral tweet in February objecting to the blackface design. Curiously, similar products–Katy Perry shows and Prada ornaments–were pulled from shelves, sparking discussion about bias in the fashion and magazine industries.

Although numerous examples exist, some of the most egregious in the magazine industry included Vogue misidentifying Noor Tagouri, 24, as Pakistani actress Noor Bukhari, 36, and WHO magazine confusing South-Sudanese model Adut Akech with images of Ugandan-Australian model Flavia Lazarus.

Tirado has been instrumental in advocating for more diversity, especially in business and managerial operations, in professional baseball. In the video below, she discusses how diversity can enhance leadership in the sports world.

Tirado hopes to instill a more diversity and representational influence in the fashion industry. As head of Gucci Changemakers, she will oversee $1.5 million in scholarships “to ensure a new generation of diverse and exceptional young people.”

Gucci plans to distribute $1 million per year over the next five years.

The fund will help high school seniors and college students who qualify for need-based scholarships–up to $20,000 per year–in these cities– Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Toronto, and Washington DC. Special consideration will be given to those planning to attend or are currently enrolled in a Historically Black College and University.

Another Gucci program will award thousands to students planning to study fashion design at an accredited four-year undergraduate college or university.

Vogue reports that Gucci hired Tirado because she was an outsider to the fashion industry. She is of Puerto Rican descent, reared in Brooklyn, and holds bachelor’s degrees in international relations and education from the University of Rochester. She earned a juris doctorate from Rutgers Law School.

Moments of Grace in a Dallas Courtroom

Brandt Jean–younger brother of Botham Jean, murdered in his own apartment by former police officer Amber Guyger–expresses forgiveness that metamorphoses into moments of grace during the sentencing phase of trial.

Many of us know the high-profile story of a former Dallas police officer who claimed she mistakenly entered the wrong apartment, thinking it was hers, and shot 26-year-old Botham Jean who was sitting on his couch, eating ice cream.

He posed no threat, but was killed by a white officer, sparking questions about police shooting unarmed African-Americans–not on the street, or in a car–but in the fabled safety of a person’s own home.

Guyger, 31, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. With good behavior, she could be released in 5. She could have been sentenced to 99 years. Prosecutors had asked for 28 in light of her actions following the shooting, including no attempt to render CPR while Bothan Jean lay dying. Moreover, prosecutors discovered that Guyger in her past had shared offensive texts and memes in social media posts.

One stated: “People are so ungrateful. No one ever thanks me for having the patience not to kill them.”

While many believed the 10-year sentence was too lenient, given the murder charge and prosecutor’s request, Brandt Jean’s victim impact statement seemed to symbolize the life and beliefs of his brother Botham Jean,  a preacher and singer at Dallas West Church of Christ.

It should be noted that moments of grace in a courtroom are rare, if ever witnessed at all. That made it the focus of news. However, as filmmaker Bree Newsome states in a tweet that appears in a CNN analysis of the courtroom scene:

The focus of concern is the white person who committed violence and their redemption. … The Black person who forgives them is viewed through the white gaze lens as a model minority solely for their willingness to forgive. The Black person exists as a vehicle for white redemption.

Brandt Jean’s words of forgiveness was affirmed when he asked Judge Tammy Kemp if he could hug Guyger. The judge allowed it, and otherwise impartial court reporters said they held back tears, describing the moment.

The scene also inspired Judge Kemp who gave Guyger her personal bible and told her to read John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life). They, too, shared a hug.

WFAA investigative producer Jason Trahan said, “I have never seen anything like that in 20 years covering courts.”

Trahan added that once Kemp gave Brandt Jean permission to hug Guyger–something else he had never seen–“the whole tenor of the courtroom changed.” The judge gave her the prisoner one of her bibles. “Most of us in the courtroom were trying not to cry, watching this happen.”

Kemp told Guyger to forgive herself and reflect on the transcendence of grace while in prison.

Living Media Ethics describes the highest humane principles of forgiveness, sympathy, compassion, empathy and grace, informing prospective journalists and practitioners not only to recognize the values in themselves but also to capture them when they happen in public to others.

Those are the photos, stories, videos, podcasts and campaigns that win awards, build community and inspire others.