ACP Story of the Year Spotlight Series: Emily Donovan, The University Daily Kansan, University of Kansas

By Sara LaMachia, Alli Murray & Malia ReynoldsCMM correspondents

This past fall, University Daily Kansan staff writer Emily Donovan delved into the life of University of Kansas student Colby Liston, a double amputee.

Liston lost both his legs in a car accident in August 2013 near the start of his freshman year. Donovan’s aim was to go beyond the initial, superficial media hubbub surrounding Liston at the time of the crash — exploring instead how he is coping long-term with his prosthetics and a new set of everyday challenges.

As Donovan, a junior English major at KU, writes, “For Colby, recovery was a matter of making himself do it. It started in the living room. Colby took five steps on newly fitted legs. The next time, he took six. Then, he walked all the way back and forth. He could make it across the room with only one crutch, so he tried without any crutches, just to see if he could do it. As soon as he accomplished one small thing, he was working toward the next goal. … Colby is only 19 and isn’t thinking that far ahead, but he plans to graduate, get a job and eventually start a family. Prosthetics haven’t stopped him from achieving any of his other goals.”


The piece — headlined “After the Accident” and including a photo illustration by Kansan associate multimedia editor George Mullinix — has been named an honorable mention winner of the 2014 ACP Feature Story of the Year award. The ACP awards, informally known as the student press Pulitzers, are among the most prestigious honors bestowed upon college journalists and their media outlets. Like an Oscar nomination, simply attaining finalist status is a mark of distinction student journos can humble-brag about on resumés and in job interviews for their entire post-grad careers.

While not affiliated in any way with the ACP awards, this CMM special series aims to tell the stories behind some of the year’s most impacting college media work — in the words of the students who created them.

In that spirit, in the exclusive Q&A below, Donovan, a native of Kansas City, Mo., talks about the challenges she faced during her reporting and writing and what she learned from Liston and his family along the way.

Emily Donovan is a staff writer at The University Daily Kansan at the University of Kansas.

Emily Donovan is a staff writer at The University Daily Kansan at the University of Kansas.

What compelled you to tackle this story?

Colby Liston’s accident was a while ago. This was someone we saw around campus, someone whose story we had known about since the year before, between the accident and when he was back on campus. A couple of other people from news outlets in the area grabbed interviews with him, but they were all … shallow. I saw Colby around and I thought there was a lot more to that story that I wanted to get into than what the news outlets had done. Another part of why I wanted to do Colby’s story and why I think it went over so very well was because people really cared about him. … He was a big, popular person on campus. People wanted to know more about him.

From reading the piece, it seems as if Colby’s family sports an especially positive outlook on life. Is that what encouraged you to focus the story on his recovery instead of the accident itself?

I think the focus of the story needed to be about what was happening now. We had done briefs on the accident a year ago when it happened, but that year-ago accident isn’t the news at this point. The accident happened in August 2012. And this story was published at the end of October 2013 — so about a year ago. It happened at 1:21 a.m. on August 26th. So, on August 27th, the big story was “this accident happened.” But, over a year later, the interesting thing about the story isn’t that the accident was tragic. The interesting thing is this is a human being still living his life.

I always try to focus a story with the reader in mind. I think any piece of writing needs to be focused on what you want the reader to be walking away thinking about. What I wanted the reader to be thinking about and what I, after talking with Colby and meeting him and doing this research, found most compelling is his motivation to keep going — to keep being himself. So that is what I think the meaningful part of the story is. I’ve never been especially interested in like, “BREAKING NEWS, there is a gory accident and everything is terrible.” Colby’s story is just about people.

What practical or ethical challenges did you encounter during your reporting?

I tried to reach out to Julian Kuszmaul, the driver of the SUV that hit Colby. He wasn’t available for comment. Kuszmaul was a very small part of the story. His name is in it. And it’s difficult to have to mention the driver of the car that hit Colby and not be able to tell that driver’s side of the story. … Kuszmaul could not talk to me. It was a respectable decision to not talk to media at that point [with the court case still open]. But it’s always kind of disappointing when I don’t get to give someone the opportunity to speak for themselves.

We are often told that people with physical disabilities may be unwilling to discuss or relive the accident that left them encumbered or feel uncomfortable when people stare. It seems as though Colby has no problem with either. Did this make it easier to talk to him and his family? And did his mindset offer you any insights about people with physical disabilities?

Absolutely. I like to start every interview by trying to make the source feel comfortable — specially when I’m asking him to talk about something that could be sensitive. I want the source to feel comfortable with me. So, the first time I met Colby, the photographer George and I ran out to his campus apartment and shook his hand and kind of just hung out for 10 minutes. George talked about what photos he would like. He had a meeting to run to so Colby and I did our “getting along” interview thereafter. But we didn’t get to the formal interview for a solid 20 minutes. …

When I first met Colby, I opened up to him by making fun of myself for getting a ticket for parking illegally on campus. I cracked a joke about something my brother had done recently. Siblings are such comedy gold. I don’t want to divulge my whole life to [sources], but letting them know I have a brother and that my brother was a total jerk this one time and said that one mean thing — people relate to that story and then see me as a person too. Especially in an interview like the one with Colby, I was asking some really personal questions about his family, so I started off by telling a joke about my brother because I’m not a question-asking robot. I’m also a student. I’m also a human being. …

I hadn’t talked to Colby before that day, but I have a ton in common with any student. There’s so much I can relate to with a student and basic questions I can ask to make them feel comfortable. Say a 50-something asks you about classes. She’s going to ask you pretty superficial questions, like, “How are classes going?” and “Do you like your professor?” If I asked you [a student] questions about class, I’m going to ask you questions like, “You know when you’re sitting in class and you’re trying really hard to pay attention, and the person in front of you has Facebook open and suddenly you really care about this person’s Facebook friends?” I’m going to ask specific, relatable things. And I think that’s what’s so thrilling about getting to do feature stories. It’s about just seeing there are people like me.

As you dug deeper into the story, what surprised you? And what did you learn?

I was talking to Colby’s dad, and that was a whole new world. He was mentioning one specific day in physical therapy. Colby and his dad went to Kansas City, which is my hometown, and he talked about this one specific hill — a big grassy hill by the craft center. And I knew the hill, and I was really excited and totally in that moment with him. Colby’s dad talked about how Colby was on the steps and trying to figure out how to walk downhill. Colby’s dad told me Colby totally tumbled – totally, on the ground. And Colby’s reaction was to laugh it off. And his dad said something like, “Well shit, you’re supposed to fall down. That’s just the obvious way to learn.”

There are moments in any recovery process that have a lot of grieving. There was, I’m sure, a lot of grieving for Colby’s legs and a lot of grieving for past losses. But what surprised and wowed me was that that part was over when he started recovery. His attitude was, “Yeah, I’m supposed to fall down sometimes. That’s how I learn.” And I was just so inspired and impressed by that.

“The best interview questions are not stiff. A good interview is not about impressing your source. A good interview is letting the person you are interviewing tell their story on their own terms. The best interview questions I have ever asked are things like, ‘How did that go?’ or ‘What were you thinking at the time?’ or ‘What did that feel like?'”

At the writing stage, did you find it difficult to include all the aspects of the story you felt were most important?

Yes! It is a process. This story went through a number of drafts. The copy editor helped me and I also had my journalism professor look at my first draft. This is one of my first major, long-narrative, true stories. I definitely learned the value of having a new set of eyes on a story. To construct the story, I had a very long interview with Colby. I had to transcribe quotations and then I had a very long interview with his dad over the phone. I made a lot of background calls to find out more information. I went through my transcriptions and pulled out the quotes I really liked and starting grouping them together. Some of these quotes ended up eventually becoming part of the sub-headers for the topics I felt were most important.

What was new about this story for me, after I had the full draft out, I asked myself what I was really trying to say in each section of the story. I went through it and I read it from the readers’ perspective — always read it as if you are the reader. I asked myself what I wanted the reader to feel and what I wanted the reader to take away from each word. There were a lot of small quotes and words I really liked, but they were not contributing to what the main point of the story was meant to be, so I had to go back and review that. The story is so much longer than what people would typically publish in a newspaper. Because the story was so long, I had to justify every word. … Certain stories, like Colby’s, deserve to be long.

What other advice would you offer student journalists tackling a similar story or writing long-form?

The best interview questions are not stiff. A good interview is not about impressing your source. A good interview is letting the person you are interviewing tell their story on their own terms. The best interview questions I have ever asked are things like, “How did that go?” or “What were you thinking at the time?” or “What did that feel like?” These questions will take them back to the [significant] moments, which will help them to give you more specific details.

Lastly, what has motivated you to practice journalism?

I think everyone has a story to tell and what I get to do in journalism is not just give people an opportunity to tell their stories, but to make readers care.

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  1. […] did an interview with College Media Matters over my feature story on Colby Liston, a double amputee, which is a finalist for the 2014 […]

  2. […] College Media Matters has a question and answer story exploring that feature’s reporting process that can be read online here. […]