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Constance Alexander: Aspiring journalists chronicle Western Ky. tornado through ‘270 Stories’ project

Image courtesy Leigh Landini Wright

December 10, 2021, was the last day of finals week at Murray State University in Western Kentucky. By 3 p.m., the campus echoed with farewells of students and faculty heading for a hiatus after another hectic semester with COVID. Graduation was scheduled for Saturday morning.

As Friday eased toward sundown, the weather felt more like early spring than almost-winter. The air was damp. Occasional bursts of wind swept the last of autumn’s leaves across empty fields and lawns, with some settling in the nooks and crannies of Mayfield’s downtown storefronts and public buildings.

All day the region was in the moderate risk category for severe weather. Forecasters warned of the possibility of storms or even tornadoes. Whether they heeded the predictions or simply went about their business with no fuss, many Graves Countians were looking ahead to Saturday holiday shopping in support of local businesses and boutiques.

Seven MSU students, all scheduled to graduate in 2022, had signed up for JMC597, a capstone class for majors and minors in journalism or TV production. Taught by Leigh Landini Wright, an associate professor of Journalism, the class was designed as an opportunity to demonstrate the mix of essential skills and insights they have developed in their disciplines and apply them to real-life news coverage.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Working as a team for the spring semester, the class typically chooses one topic and produces individual stories, as well as podcasts and videos. The idea is to take what they learned in an academic setting and show what they know outside of the “bubble” on campus, according to the professor.

“I run the class like a newsroom,” Wright explained. “It throws them into the deep end without water wings.”

Gage Simpson, senior journalism major from Louisville, was still in Murray the night of December 10, so when a powerful tornado ripped through the region, he responded like a seasoned journalist. As soon as it was safe, he drove to nearby Mayfield and stayed until sunrise, documenting what he saw in photographs.

When the semester began in January, JMC597 met; selecting the focus for their capstone project was a no-brainer. The tornado was chosen as the topic, and the seven participants assumed various roles and brainstormed possible storylines.

“Go out and do it,” was the mission.

Simpson chronicled the path of the supercell thunderstorm that began around 7 p.m. in Arkansas, cutting a destructive path that eventually roared into western Kentucky, flattening homes, businesses, and whole communities. The extensive coverage by the JMC597 team also included recovery stories and stunning pictures. Public officials, store owners, and first responders were some of the viewpoints represented.

One angle explored was impact of the tornado on wildlife; another delved into storm anxiety among children. An MSU professor, whose hometown was Mayfield, reflected on seeing the destruction to her community. Even the course instructor, Leigh Landini Wright, pitched in to take photos. An image of hope – Be the Light After the Storm – captured local resolve to recover and rebuild.

The ambitious project was entitled 270 Stories because that is the Kentucky area code for the region most impacted by the tornado. The goal of podcasts produced for the project was to tell a story in 270 seconds, or roughly 4.5 minutes.

“It was the biggest challenge ever done in a capstone,” the instructor declared.

Throughout the semester, students learned about the challenges of covering deeply personal stories and providing factual accounts of specific costs and complicated processes associated with cleanup and recovery. The breadth and depth of coverage meant that lessons learned were likely to have long-term impact on students.

For those pursuing careers in journalism, their introduction to community news was invaluable, “It is hard being a community journalist,” Wright said. “When tragedy happens, they’ll be covering it. They will know the people.”

The team of seven was comprised of editor Jillian Smith, Murray Ky; assistant editor Cady Stribling, Frankfort, Ky; social media coordinator Margaret Helms, Decatur Alabama; videographers Mallory Hlava and Joey Reynolds; webmaster Gage Simpson; and technician DeCorrian Walker, Memphis Tenn.

“I really am proud of these seven students. It was not easy, and we had a few days where it was not fun either,” Wright admitted. “We had hiccups along the way with sources not calling back or angles not panning out, but they persevered. I think that says something for these students since they did this work at the end of a pandemic that upended their entire education.”

She went on to explain that some of the students were in journalism classes that had to be shifted to Zoom or online over the past two year.

“That makes their achievement even more remarkable,” she said.

The entire project is viewable at 270stories.mymurraystate.com.

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