Exercising our breaking-news muscles

The following is a graded exercise, due at 10 a.m. Thursday, March 8. Final versions of your GEO strike story also will be graded and also will be due at 10 a.m. Thursday, a two-day extension of the original deadline.

Students who attended the past few classes will have an obvious advantage because we have gone over preliminary drafts and talked about ways to improve both pieces. Others will have to try their best and accept the consequences. Both are absolute, “drop dead” deadlines. Late work will not be graded.


Imagine it’s a Saturday, you are working as a breaking-news reporter for a Champaign-Urbana news organization, and you have gathered the information below from a telephone interview with Sgt. John Oliver, a spokesman for the Champaign Police Department.

Use these notes, which for the purposes of this exercise we will assume are totally accurate and the only source of information you have, to write a news story, probably around 250 words, for publication on your news organization’s website.  Post your story in the Breaking News category of this site.


  • 43-year-old Emily Sawyer is dead.
  • She lived at 3842 Nottingham Court, Champaign. She grew up in Danville.
  • She has three children younger than 10 and an 86-year-old mother.
  • Police received a cell phone report of young males throwing debris from the Prospect Avenue overpass onto Interstate 74 just before the 8 a.m. accident today.
  • Sawyer is a breast-cancer survivor. She underwent a lumpectomy and chemotherapy two years ago.
  • She had been driving her mother to church in St. Joseph.
  • Anyone with information about the accident can call Champaign County Crimestoppers at (217) 373-TIPS.
  • Sawyer was taken to Carle Foundation Hospital. Pronounced DOA.
  • Relatives at the hospital conducted a news conference and said fences should be erected on overpasses throughout the area.
  • A rock the size of a football crashed through the front windshield of Sawyer’s 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer, splitting open her head. The rock landed in the back seat.
  • The car crashed into a protective railing separating oncoming traffic on I-74.
  • The Prospect Avenue overpass is used both by vehicles and by bicyclists and pedestrians to get to businesses north of the freeway.
  • Sawyer’s mother, Celine Taylor, was treated at Carle for a broken arm and multiple bruises. She was “disoriented” after the accident.
  • Sawyer was divorced. She was an administrative aide at Champaign Unit 4 schools.
  • Her two sisters, Felicity Shrove and Donna Taylor, issued this statement at the hospital: “This was a senseless tragedy. Emily was a wonderful mother and caring daughter. Who would do this to a perfect stranger, just for kicks? It could have been any one of us or any of our kids. We hope that steps can be taken to prevent this from happening to anyone else.”
  • No other vehicles were involved in the crash. Several motorists stopped to offer help.
  • Last year, prominent Urbana lawyer Samuel T. Howe was killed when a can of gasoline was dropped from an overpass on Windsor Road onto Interstate 57, where he had been driving. No one else was in the car.
  • Relatives said that ever since her father died four years ago, Sawyer had carried on a tradition of taking her mother to Holy Family Catholic Church in Danville every Saturday morning and then shopping and having lunch together on Marketplace Mall on the way back.
  • A pendant of St. Christopher was found on the driver’s seat after the accident.
  • Police estimated that the piece of granite weighed 10 pounds.

This exercise was adapted from a journalism entrance exam administered at New York University.