Smith: Reflecting on the coverage of Savannah McNealy

Stuart Smith

Editor’s note: As part of a media transparency initiative, on Aug. 20, 2018, The Collegian spent the first day of publishing of the year telling our readers about us. You can read more about the people behind our publication in the Editor’s Blog.

This column should not take away from anyone else’s experiences from Oct. 19. It simply expresses how I, one of the reporters for that story, felt through the day.

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Last October was when Savannah McNealy was killed.

We all woke up to alerts on our phone about an overnight shooting, with the all clear alert being sent out at 4:50, long before many students were awake.

I got to the newsroom around 8:00 that morning. Three of my coworkers had already been on the story. My CTV colleagues Emma Iannacone and Grace Reader, now a reporter in Grand Junction, had put together a package that I published and posted on our social media channels. Shortly after, my editor Rachel Telljohn roped me in to helping with the article.

We didn’t know much at the time. The shooting had been hours earlier and we still only knew that it had happened, where it was and how many people were involved. In the back of our minds we suspected that it involved at least one CSU student, but there was no confirmation until later.

Throughout the morning we slowly collected more info, including confirmation that a student was involved, although the name was kept a secret for privacy reasons.

We were proud of ourselves. We were beating all the major news outlets in the area, even CBS4 and The Coloradoan.

I continued going to class that day, although I let my professors, both in the journalism department, know what was up and kept checking my phone for any updates.

Then the big info came. At that point, we knew the deceased was a CSU student, but none of us expected to know her.

Fort Collins Police Services had done a good job of roping off the area. I had managed to get some photos of the scene through the grapevine, but they were all low-quality photos that didn’t show detail.

Someone, somehow, got a good look at the body and recognized Savannah.

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Immediately, every feeling of pride the four of us felt disappeared, and we deserved it. Honestly, we’d become cocky that day. We got so caught up in the fun of reporting we forgot what we were doing was real. It was real, and we’d thrown that out the window for our pride.

And we sat on that knowledge for hours. By pure chance, we had been able to identify Savannah. We agreed among ourselves not to release the name until the Larimer County Coroner’s Office did, although we did inform authorities that we knew it was her.

We gathered in the newsroom that afternoon and let out our feelings. Lots of crying, lots of talking, lots of no talking.

I remember asking our advisor, Jim Rodenbush, how I was supposed to write that it was Savannah. He replied honestly: “I have no f*cking clue.”

Afterwards, we continued our work. Rachel, Emma, Grace and I had kept up with new information on our phones, but we’d tabled compiling it together.

That night, I went to CTV broadcast. We didn’t include her name.

Twenty minutes after the show ended, we got confirmation that we could reveal it was Savannah.

That was the most difficult line I’ve ever had to write.

The Collegian can confirm that the name of the deceased is Savannah McNealy. She was an employee of Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation, which operates The Collegian.”

Collegian Assistant News Editor Stuart Smith can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @stuartsmithnews.