Danielle Ferguson, Sioux Falls Argus Leader reporter, will return to campus April 1 to relate her experience as a pool reporter covering the execution last year of Rodney Berget. She is pictured here (left/center with phone) as student editor upon being informed the Iowa State Daily was named “best in the country” in the 2015 Mark of Excellence competition.
Danielle Ferguson was a senior at McCook Central High School in Salem, S.D., in 2011 when Rodney Berget was implicated in the fatal beating of prison guard Ronald Johnson at the South Dakota State Penitentiary. Berget at the time was serving a life sentence for attempted murder and kidnapping. He and a fellow inmate, Eric Robert, failed in their escape attempt. Robert was executed in 2012.
By Oct. 29, 2018, Ferguson already had graduated Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, working for two years as a crime reporter for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
In this account, published in the Argus Leader, Ferguson describes her demeanor as media witness covering the execution of 56-year-old Berget:
I’m not here to tell you about my individual thoughts on the death penalty or the justice system. My objective is to share my experience of what happened to give you a look into the process. Journalists as “pool reporters” have a unique responsibility in executions. We must serve as witnesses for the public and rest of the media. … I was aware of my role and prepared to carry it out.
To prepare for her visit, students in Iowa State’s Media Ethics class were asked to read up on capital punishment and to view these charts from the fact sheet provided by the Death Penalty Information Center.
This chart documents the number of executions in the United States since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated after a four-year hiatus during which the U.S. Supreme Court commuted death sentences to life imprisonment.
This chart documents the race of those executed and the race of victims in death penalty cases.
The Information Center also reports that some 160 people have been exonerated since 1973 because of new evidence in their cases. Between 1973-1999, that represented about three exonerations per year. Between 2000-2011, the average rose to five exonerations per year.
The Center publishes other statistics associated with capital punishment, including the methods used since 1976:
- 1316 Lethal Injection
- 160 Electrocution
- 11 Gas Chamber
- 3 Hanging
- 3 Firing Squad
As of 2017, 53 women were on death row, less than 2% of that demographic, with 16 executed since 1976.
Living Media Ethics advises reporters and editors on coverage of executions. Reporters are expected to mask their emotions, although some have cried or become nauseated. Some suffered short-term psychological trauma.
Reporters who serve as media witnesses should follow these guidelines, drawn from several online sources:
- Fill notebooks with everything, no matter how insignificant it seems. Details in execution stories are important for the public to know.
- Don’t forget to mention key points in your execution story: the crime, the victim, the victim’s family and the trial. The murder may have taken place 10 or 15 years earlier. Track everyone down before the execution.
- Record family and victim reactions during the execution.
- You will have to tell others, as a source, what you witnessed as pool reporter.
- Ask for downtime after the coverage. If you need counseling, get it.
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma notes that young journalists like Ferguson “will often encounter violence among their first reporting experiences,” risking Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder lasting a month or more.
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has posted an article titled “Journalists and PTSD,” noting the assumption that “journalists are not permanently impacted by the events they cover” and that they are “somehow immune to the reverberating impact of the human suffering they witness.” The article also challenges the convention that reporters “would be thought of as weak and less capable than his or her colleagues” if they acknowledged their emotions in covering events such as executions.
The article cites research about coping behaviors, including seeking help, writing about the experience, accepting support from other journalists and taking advantage of resources offered by the Dart Center.