Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

University of Kentucky sports PIO punishes student newspaper for interviewing basketball players before “embargo”

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Aaron Smith, a reporter for the University of Kentucky’s Kentucky Kernel — an independent student newspaper — had a legitimate scoop earlier this week. He found out which two students would be the season’s walk-ons for Kentucky’s highly ranked basketball team, and he called them to confirm.

Smith got the information fair and square — another player had tweeted that there were two walk-ons, after all — and reporting it didn’t raise any eyebrows. But when he tried to interview the two players — who both declined to talk — associate athletic department director for media relations DeWayne Peevy got, well, peeved, as the Kernel reports:

Smith was to receive access, along with other select members of the media, to one-on-one interviews with members of the basketball team on Tuesday, but lost that “reward” when he attempted to interview the two athletes, said DeWayne Peevy, UK’s associate athletic director for UK Media Relations.

Peevy said that Tuesday’s interviews are “a reward to, basically, a preferred group of people to give them special access.”

He said there has to be “some sort of trust” between UK Athletics and any reporter given access to this round of interviews because information received during them is supposed to be embargoed until Oct. 1.

This punishment, however, was despite the fact that, as Peevy later tweeted, no one signs an agreement with the Kentucky sports department.

Sigh.

Press officers sometimes treat students reporters differently, as they don’t deserve the access the pros do. That happens in science journalism: EurekAlert won’t give science journalism graduate students access to embargoed material, something I’ve said I find troubling, as a journalism educator. Quite frankly, it’s also not a good idea. After all, if you piss off journalists while they’re students, aren’t they less likely to want to work with you when they graduate? (And in case anyone thinks it’s a conflict of interest, I should disclose that I cut my journalistic teeth at my own college paper.)

It turns out, however, that Peevy is an equal-opportunity offender when it comes to attempts to control the media, notes the Kernel (link added):

In July, CBSSports.com’s Gary Parrish published a story saying Davis, the freshman who tweeted about the walk-ons, would have to face questions about his recruitment. Peevy replied to the story on Twitter, saying, “I guess we now know one media seat that will be available at Rupp this year. BBN don’t give them what they want, your clicks! #WeAreUK.”

Peter Baniak, editor and vice president of the Lexington Herald-Leader, said the newspaper had an access issue with UK Athletics officials when they held invitation-only access to events and invited one specific Herald-Leader reporter over another. He said the newspaper declined to attend.

“Ultimately, we determine which reporters cover which stories,” Baniak said. “The newspaper makes assignments.”

Louisville attorney Jon L. Fleischaker told the Herald-Leader this week’s sanction was a violation of the First Amendment. Without claiming to be a First Amendment expert — I’ll defer to Floyd Abrams on that — I have to say I’m not sure I agree. Peevy isn’t stopping the Kernel from publishing, and if the student newspaper’s reporters are as good as their tactics suggest, the lack of access won’t slow them down.

Fleischaker as much as admitted that when the Louisville Courier-Journal called him for comment:

“Generally speaking, the sports program is part of the university and the university is part of a state apparatus,” he said. “And it just seems inappropriate to me to punish student journalists to exercising their right to student journalism. If a university wants to do that, I guess it’s its prerogative. But this must say something bigger about sports in our society that they can get upset about something like this.”

And that’s where I couldn’t agree more. It’s extremely concerning that anyone — let alone a publicly funded university — is being this heavy-handed, and doesn’t have any regrets. In a story picking up the kerfuffle, ESPN reports that the Associate Press Managing Editors and Associated Press Sports Editors both sent Peevy letters of complaint.

That story also included an illuminating note quote from Peevy, after he said the Kernel would have the “same access going forward.”

“They’re not losing anything,” he said. “It’s just what I would consider a favor to include them, I’m rescinding. I have no ill-will toward The Kernel. They have that choice. You can decide whether you want to call. You can’t go to jail for it. But you might lose that relationship. That’s all we’re talking about.”

“I’ve got to protect the system,” he said.

Ah, the system. I’m not idealistic enough to pretend that certain reporters don’t get preferential access. But again, this is a publicly funded institution that has already made it clear that if they don’t like your coverage, they’re going to block you.

There’s a parallel here to — wait for it — the Ingelfinger Rule. Sure, science reporters can interview whomever they want. But if those interview subjects think journals will punish them for talking, they’re going to be tight-lipped.

I’ll give Peevy credit for putting his money where his mouth is. In Embargo  Watch’s experience, many journals aren’t willing to punish embargo breakers, which to suggests they don’t want to anger reporters and give up the chance of coverage in the future. Maybe the balance of power is different in sports journalism. And if this episode lays bare the too-cozy relationship between providers of information and those who cover it, that’s actually not such a bad thing.

But journalism should be about shining the light in places people don’t want it shined — not cozy relationships in which vested interests control the flow of information.

Hat tip: Edward Vielmetti

Written by Ivan Oransky

August 31, 2011 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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