Ethics Corner: University of Kentucky Mishandles Sports Reporters

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By: Allan Wolper

Ethics Corner: University of Kentucky Mishandles Sports Reporters

George Orwell’s 1949 tome on political repression, “1984,” told of Oceania, a fictional society ruled by Big Brother that bugged the phones of its citizens and practiced strict mind control.

Orwell would have loved the University of Kentucky, the publicly funded institution that recently banned the Kentucky Kernel, its independent campus newspaper, from covering its annual invitation-only media day.

The paper’s sin? Aaron Smith, managing editor and sports writer, telephoned a couple of basketball players to ask if they had made the team, without first getting the athletic department’s permission to make those calls.

“1984” should be a must-read on the Lexington campus as well as in newsrooms across the state. That’s because reporters from media organizations — be they students or professionals — are in constant danger of having their access to players and athletic officials cut off if they publish something the athletic department disagrees with or finds offensive.

It’s an institution of higher learning where athletic university staffers station themselves next to journalists interviewing basketball players to make sure the hoopsters don’t commit a thought crime. It’s an academic outpost where Thalethia Routt, an associate legal counsel to the university, criticized Smith in an online post for being a “pretend journalist,” because he dared to telephone two players — a violation of the athletic department’s media guidelines.

For that Oceania-like crime of behavior, DeWayne Peevy, UK associate athletics director for media relations, or chief thought speaker, kept Smith from attending the media basketball event Sept. 13.

On that day, Peevy allowed Kentucky’s sports journalists to actually speak to the basketball players and their coach, John Calipari. Hardly a First Amendment celebration in the Bluegrass State.

The crackdown on the Kentucky Kernel and the reaction by the university athletic department would be YouTube-comical if the university didn’t have an obvious ulterior motive. “The real issue isn’t about them being concerned about interview requests,” Billy Reed, a former sports writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader, told a Kentucky journalism school seminar. “They want to control their product … because this is a big business.”

It’s also a scary business that affects the school newspaper’s coverage of all Kentucky sports. Last year, the university stopped Kernel staffers from distributing about 2,000 copies of the paper inside UK’s Commonwealth Stadium and to tailgaters around the football stadium — something the students had been doing for 10 years. Why? Because the university has an $80 million contract with IMG, a sports marketing firm, granting exclusive media and advertising rights to every UK sport. In non-sports speak, that makes IMG the university’s chief propagandist.

First Amendment lawyers, editors,and assorted media publications all have raised their voices to support the Kernel in its latest confrontation with the university. But I could not find any real flashes of outrage from UK faculty — an academic condition that has become an epidemic on college campuses with big-time sports programs.

“Most faculty don’t understand the role of the school paper,” said Sally Renaud, who just finished up a year as president of College Media Advisers, an organization that fights for the First Amendment rights of campus newspapers. “The faculty don’t seem to know the campus paper is often the only permanent record of university affairs.”

The Kentucky student journalists seem mostly amused by the attention they’re getting and vow to keep monitoring the athletic department. “If we need to talk to a player for an important story, we’re going to call him,” Taylor Moak, editor-in-chief, told me. “They’re not going to stop us from doing any investigative stories.”

I certainly hope so, but there is a problem the Kernel keeps to itself: The newspaper’s offices are located in a university building. That means the school can shut them down any time it feels like doing so, even though the university says it respects the paper’s right to hold it accountable.

“The Kernel has a long tradition of asking tough questions in its role as an independent newspaper, and this administration has a long tradition of defending student journalists’ right to do so,” said Jay Blanton, university executive director of public relations, in a statement to the media. But as the saying goes, watch what they do, not what they say.

The university, meanwhile, seems poised to pounce on any mistake by the professional Kentucky media. Peevy recently told the Herald-Leader he was not allowing one of its reporters to cover one of the university’s players because of a mistake made in a question and answer interview.

It was the third time in the last two years that UK has tried to dictate which Herald-Leader reporter can cover its basketball team. The last time it happened, Peter Baniak, editor of the Herald-Leader, boycotted the university’s media days. He told me his editors were discussing how to handle this most recent incident.

UK’s love and especially hate relationship with its hometown paper dates back to 1985 when the Herald-Leader published a devastating series, called “Playing Above the Rules,” by Jeffrey A. Marx and Michael M. York, that exposed illegal cash payoffs to Kentucky basketball players. The series won a Pulitzer Prize the following year.

I have a suggestion on how to handle the Kentucky censors. The next time the university bans the campus paper, or any other media organization, from covering one of its events, all the journalists should pack up their computers and walk out. When any institution — especially a university— violates the First Amendment rights of one news organization, it violates the rights of them all, as well as their readers and viewers.

Allan Wolper, professor of journalism at Rutgers University, is the host of “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” a podcast on WBGO.org, an NPR affiliate in the New York area. He has won more than 50 journalism prizes. His ethics columns in E&P have been honored by The National Press Club and the New York chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

 

4 thoughts on “Ethics Corner: University of Kentucky Mishandles Sports Reporters

  • November 14, 2011 at 8:40 pm
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    I’ve written the UK Alumni Association telling them I’ll be withholding further support til I see some positive movement on this issue. I’ve written the journalism department expressing the view that the University’s actions can only diminish the reputation of its j-school. On the other hand, I find the Kernel-offices-in-school-building situation troublesome. It’s hard to ask to be treated like all the other journalists, on the one hand, and then accept free room (if not board), on the other.

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  • November 14, 2011 at 8:41 pm
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    How do we have a university faculty that doesn’t understand the purpose of a student newspaper and the fact that journalists are supposed to ask questions that need to be asked, not play cheerleader or human microphone stand? But what’s happening at Kentucky is not unusual. Sports commentator Bruce Hooley (fired for criticizing Ohio State on his radio show) explains in this clip how things have changed at Ohio State. http://vimeo.com/27490170 One reason we see scandal after scandal in college athletics is because the press has failed to do its job. Here’s what happened in Columbus: http://newsit.net/stories/1173 When journalism fails, bad things happen. http://www.whenjournalismfails.blogspot.com

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  • November 16, 2011 at 8:41 pm
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    This cannot be the same university where I received my B.A. in journalism and held many different positions with the Kentucky Kernel and student publications. I learned more from the daily experience of writing, editing and even making mistakes which resulted in a 20 year career with a major daily newspaper. Student journalists have to be able to ask questions and foster independent thought. The campus newspaper’s function is not a public relations vehicle but a place for students to develop reporting skills. For shame.

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  • November 23, 2011 at 8:41 pm
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    I find this article lazy and untimely. This incident occurred in August. Nevertheless, the author clearly does not understand the circumstances and time constraints placed on UK basketball players, nor makes any effort to understand the other side of this issue. If all media outlets(there are dozens that cover UK basketball) were allowed to contact the players directly, players would be flooded with constant media contacts. This would create an unreasonable constraint on their time as student athletes. Contact is controlled for the benefit of the student, not UK. The rule is clearly needed. However the author fails to contact any other journalists who actually cover UK basketball to see why the rule is in place. The student journalist broke the rule, and knew he was breaking it. The punishment was small and it was well within the rights of the UKAA to limit access (one time) to the exact players that the student attempted to call directly in violation of UKAA’s media rules. As an attorney who works in Constitutional law, I can also tell you that this punishment is not a First Amendment violation. Even a basic understanding of the law would make this clear. However, the author makes no effort to correct this error by discussing the issue with an attorney. I know no UK fans who are upset with the LHL’s reporting of the UK scandal in the 1980’s. Cheating should be exposed and punished. However, I know many who are upset when the LHL publishes false reports of players having improper cars (by hiding in bushes and taking photos), publishing false player quotes, printing fictionalized reports of players driving cars away from games (admittedly printing fictional material as fact), calling program recruits and parents and pressuring them not to attend UK, etc. Every instance is the LHL’s attempt to win another Pulitzer by recklessly publishing false information (while burying the correction on the back page days later). Players parents have frequently criticized LHL writers for how their sons were treated by the LHL while at UK. These instances are when UK excludes the LHL from private events, not just on a whim. However, none of those instances are explored in this article. Do the journalists have no responsibilities or duty to act ethnically to 18-22 kids? The author clearly has no context for the complex environment that is UK athletics and it shows in his one side reactionary piece. Speaking of context, the statement attributed to Mrs. Routt lacked the proper context of the statement or where it came from. Lazy and, I believe, intentionally misleading. I did disagree with the schools decision to limit students from distributing the student paper at football games. However, I agreed with the solution (which of course the author did not discuss). The student newspaper is allowed to have racks and vendors stationed around the stadium but is limited to walking around the parking lot and handing out papers to tailgaters within two hours before the game. Seems like a small concession to the private business who paid 80 million dollars for the UK media rights. No other school that has a contract with IMG allows this much activity by a student paper at the football stadium. The writer’s suggestion for all “media” members to walk out is the clearest example of the writer’s complete lack of understanding of UK sports and their fans. There is enough direct access to UK players/games through games on TV, the coach’s website, his 1 million + follower twitter account, UK sports information, IMG, bloggers, message boards, and fan twitter accounts that most UK sports readers would not notice if many in the print media walked out of the room. This is a lazy one side piece which is a good example of why print media is dying: the inability to look inward as well as outward for the cause of your difficulties.

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