7 tips for covering college sports

Experts give advice on dealing with access to the athletic department

When University at Buffalo football player Scott Pettigrew was stabbed at a downtown nightclub Oct. 9, the university’s athletic department immediately sent out notifications to student athletes telling them not to speak to the press.

To Matthew Parrino, editor in chief of The Spectrum, the university’s student newspaper, it was clear it was going to be another battle for access between the paper and the sports information office.

“There was an immediate cease-to-speak order put on everybody in athletics over there,” Parrino said. “They didn’t want any of the students talking. We ended up having to send out our reporters to the student unions to find athletes.”

Spectrum adviser Jody Kleinberg-Biehl said the paper has long had access issues with the athletic department.

“As we were attempting to interview people about it, the athletic department first of all refused to comment about it,” Kleinberg-Biehl said. “Second of all, as we were speaking to other student athletes they sent out an email to all of the students telling them not to speak to us about anything.”

Parrino said he contacted Pettigrew at his home to discuss the stabbing. The player was willing to talk, and even submit a photo for publication.

“They told him not to give it to us. [We told him], ‘People are saying you’re dead. People want to know what happened,’” Parrino said.

Parrino and Kleinberg-Biehl said it’s unclear whether Pettigrew faced any punishment for supplying the photo.

University at Buffalo Athletics representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

“The problem is we feel like it’s been an issue for years,” Parrino said. “We’re kind of hamstrung [because] they are very guarded about it.”

The conflict at Buffalo isn’t an isolated one, in an athletic environment at some schools where anything but positive coverage can result in the restriction of player access.

“[The athletic department’s] argument is that these are athletes and they don’t want them to say anything that can be taken against them,” Kleinberg-Biehl said. “My argument is that they’re being interviewed by their fellow students. It’s not professionals interviewing. It’s college students.”

The Spectrum also tried to write profiles on athletes who have children, but the athletic department refused to cooperate and told student athletes they could not, either.

“We’ve written editorials about it (access). But it’s a difficult problem because the more we write about them, the less we get from them,” Kleinberg-Biehl said. “It’s a problem every semester.”

Kelli Hadley, editor in chief of The Argonaut, the University of Idaho’s student newspaper, said she was warned when she took the position that athletic restrictions are an issue.

“They rarely flat-out refuse us to talk to anybody,” Hadley said. “[But] there were a couple times where we couldn’t get access to an athlete in time and we wanted an interview in a story at the last minute and I happened to know one of the athletes. They really frowned upon that. They really don’t like that.”

Insisting that access to players and games be run through media relations can put journalists in a bind when those spokespeople aren’t available. Hadley said sports information officials have occasionally forgotten to return the newspaper’s phone calls.

“There have been a couple times where a reporter of mine has tried to get access to a practice or a game and maybe the media relations person ‘accidently’ forgot to call them back or didn’t get to them in time,” Hadley said. “That’s kind of the case with certain sports over others.”

Deal with university PR

Jill Riepenhoff, an investigative reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, said it’s important for student journalists to have conversations with editors and sports information directors when dealing with restricted access.

“I often deal with the head communication person for the university as a whole – whoever that person is, although they don’t necessarily speak on behalf of athletics I’ll go to them anyway – and they tend to be much more helpful and they don’t have those nitpicky things like, ‘I don’t like the way you asked Coach that question last week,’” Riepenhoff said.

Problems with sports information directors are not limited to student journalists, she added.

“Across the country, especially at the bigger universities, [SIDs] play and exist in this kind of secretive world,” Riepenhoff said. “They are not used to getting public records requests, they’re just not used to those kinds of things, they’re used to answering how many yards did the running back get in the game and did it break a record or something like that.”

Call for backup

Riepenhoff suggests student reporters hitting access walls should work together with other local media.

“You can bring more voices to the table of ‘how do we get beyond this’ or ‘what’s the process that we can set up so we can get records or get information or get what we need.’”

Establish a rapport

Riepenhoff believes student journalists can help build relationships with SIDs by following through on public record requests.

“Establishing a rapport is very important,” she said. “They know that you’re going to be there. When you ask for records, you’re going to look at them, you’re going to pick them up, and that helps with credibility. Sometimes they’ll chase all this stuff down, and then the reporter is like, ‘Nevermind, not important.’”

Work the beat

Riepenhoff also said students covering sports should follow best practices when covering any beat – meet with key officials in the athletic department, discuss story ideas and things the sports department is excited about and ask plenty of questions.

“If you’re on campus and you’re covering the athletic department, you really need to go meet these people face to face,” Riepenhoff said. “Having those initial conversations will really help a lot.”

Expect openness

Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, said despite privacy concerns student journalists should expect transparency from athletic departments.

“You should have the same expectation of getting public information from the sports department that you can about any other department,” Horvit said. “There are going to be limitations about information you can get about individual players based on certain information based on appropriate privacy concerns.”

One of the most common legal hurdles reporters face is FERPA, the federal student privacy law. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act allows the Department of Education to pull funding from schools that have practice of releasing confidential “education records” — though the department has never actually done so.

Freedom of information and privacy advocates continue to spar over what information should truly be private, a debate that frequently takes place in court. Organizations like the Student Press Law Center provide free legal assistance to student reporters facing FERPA roadblocks.

Horvit said students facing aggressive sports information officials should “continue to do the journalism.”

“Often times students run into sports departments going far beyond what the law allows and too often students just don’t understand what the rules are,” Horvit said.

Horvit said journalists should not be intimidated by threats over access, adding that most disputes ease over time.

“I’ve heard of cases where sports information offices have threatened and have in fact cut off access to practices and other things for student news organizations that have either done stories they didn’t like or pushed on topics that concerned them,” Horvit said. “In those cases, the best thing to do is to continue to do the journalism and in just about every case I’ve ever heard of, ultimately the students are invited back because a) that’s what’s appropriate and b) the team wants the coverage.”

Go over their heads

Horvit also suggests student journalists contact administrators outside of the athletic department to seek relief if the restrictions threaten the quality of student journalism.

“Your newspaper, your organization, is every bit as important as whatever it is the sports department is doing,” Horvit said.

Keep doing journalism

Access restrictions based on negative coverage are never acceptable, said Joe Gisondi, author of the “Field Guide to Covering Sports” and associate professor at Eastern Illinois University.

“If there’s a situation where a sports information officer or athletics office is taking away credentials or taking away access to teams or players based purely upon negative coverage, clearly that’s unacceptable,” Gisondi said. “That’s not the way you should be running sports information or an athletics department.”

Gisondi said college-level sports reporters often just rely on athletics departments to give them all the facts.

“Most public relations people are going to spin it in some manner so that it’s not so negative, so at that point sports journalists need to be journalists. Too often they just go to the SID and expect the SID to give them everything,” Gisondi said. “They go to the game, they want the stats, and not enough sports journalists at the college level are acting as journalists in these cases.”

Horvit, Gisondi and Riepenhoff all agreed that the most important thing is to continue to do good journalism – even in the face of access restrictions.

“If somebody gets arrested, they need to go pull police reports,” Gisondi said. “Be reporters. You can’t expect the sports information director to give you all that information.”

By Nathan Hardin, SPLC staff writer

reports, Spring 2011