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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Reporting the Ryan Ferguson ruling requires legal language calisthenics

By Tom Warhover
November 8, 2013 | 8:38 p.m. CST

Dear Reader,

Tuesday was a no-stop, throw-everything-at-it kind of day and night in the Missourian newsroom.

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News of an opinion by the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District came out about 8:15 that morning, and it was a bombshell: Ryan Ferguson’s conviction in the murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt was vacated. Ferguson could be freed after almost eight years in prison.

The ruling was amplified by worldwide attention, partly created by his media savvy father and lawyer and by national, television news shows.

The opinion didn’t make it easy to be a reporter trying to explain why the court did what it did or even how Ferguson could be released. If this were a gymnastics contest, the level of difficulty would be a 9.4 out of 10.

I was impressed with the first reports: Within 45 minutes there was a 12- or 14-paragraph article and the complete 54-page court opinion. By 10 a.m., six reporters were making calls or tracking other information, a social media aggregation page had been put up, the report had been updated at least three times, and a photo gallery had been pulled together.

By that point, the totality of the coverage was accurate. It was also incomplete. There was context in terms of Ferguson’s history, but the legal explanations were more difficult to come by.

Public safety editor Katherine Reed, who did a masterful job of pulling all the pieces together throughout the day, said deciphering the legal language was the hardest part.

Reporter Tracey Goldner and Reed worked with MU law professor Rodney Uphoff to create an explanatory Q and A that took some of the mystery out of the legalese.

It was a delicate art of translating terms like “gateway to cause and prejudice” to language a layperson could understand without simplifying to the point of inaccuracy.  The article was exactly what I hoped for after I read the court opinion and realized that I wasn’t sure what much of it meant.

Language minefields lay everywhere. When I came into the office the next morning, Reed was beside herself over whether the case had been “overturned,” as the Missourian articles said in places. The court said, “Ferguson’s convictions are vacated.”

Each lawyer she contacted had a slightly different read on whether the words were acceptable synonyms. In the end, the best explanation I could gather was that the verb “vacated” was similar to “overturned” but triggered different procedural next steps. The words are first cousins, at least. Maybe siblings.

Still, Reed did the right thing in changing the references to say Ferguson’s case was vacated; it was more specific and, therefore, more accurate.

There were other hiccups Tuesday: A clear and simple timeline was developed for print, but technical problems prevented publishing an interactive version until the next day; the Missourian’s live streaming of a news conference worked in my opinion, but the multimedia editor thought the audio should have been better. Both were self-imposed levels of difficulty, and I was happy the staff was pushing its boundaries.

Whether the case becomes simpler now depends on the attorney general's office. If it would decide to let things lie, then the next big story – Ryan Ferguson freed — will be pretty straightforward.