Editor & Publisher Piece: Kentucky’s Need to Control Basketball Program Led to Student Newspaper Censorship

An “Ethics Corner” column in the latest issue of Editor & Publisher is offering one last journalistic smackdown of the deplorable student press censorship earlier this semester at the University of Kentucky.

For the uninitiated, here are the facts…  The timing: late August.  The location: Lexington, Ky.  The situation: University of Kentucky athletics officials, angry over a story published in The Kentucky Kernel, barred the campus newspaper from a day of one-on-one interviews with the school’s basketball team.  According to a Lexington Herald-Leader report, the Kernel had violated an unofficial UK rule limiting journalists from speaking to student athletes without the coordination of university media relations.

The UK media team says the rule is in place to ensure athletes are not “bombarded with interview requests constantly.”  Hmm.  Or maybe instead, as Rutgers University journalism professor Allan Wolper writes in E&P, the rule is an offshoot of the school’s almost-Orwellian need to control EVERYTHING about its basketball program.

As he writes, “[R]eporters 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 [the Kernel student reporter at the heart of this controversy] in an online post for being a ‘pretend journalist,’ because he dared to telephone two players.”

Wolper’s words build off the news media and public criticism aimed at UK Athletics that poured out in the immediate aftermath of the controversy.

The part of Wolper’s wonderful write-up that most shocked and saddened me: Apparently, UK journalism professors did not stand by the paper’s side and publicly express “real flashes of outrage” about the incident.  For the sake of the school’s j-program, I hope Wolper’s assessment is somehow mistaken.  Censorship is not something journalism educators should stay quiet about.

One Response to “Editor & Publisher Piece: Kentucky’s Need to Control Basketball Program Led to Student Newspaper Censorship”
  1. T says:

    I have conflicting thoughts on this whole situation as a former sports editor at a college newspaper and current PR specialist.

    On one hand, of course they should be able to call/email/Facebook/tweet whoever they want for a story. But, there are established rules or “unofficial rules” that this college newspaper must’ve known.

    I learned quickly in my time as a sports editor that there are established and unofficial rules that you follow if you want to be given the right to coverage of sports programs like Kentucky bball. There are situations that you must deal with as a college newspaper; you have to earn respect as a student, and going behind backs for stories without initially asking (a simple email that says “Are these players walk-ons?”) doesn’t help credibility with that PR staff.

    Banning the student newspaper from an interview session is unacceptable, but I would’ve expected a call explaining or re-explaining the policies. Here’s a tip for Kentucky’s PR staff: Make that rule more than just an “unofficial” one. By not having a policy like that, you are causing yourself so much scrutiny.

    Each year prior to the fall sport season, I would receive an email (along with other media outlets) from the sports PR staff at my school telling me that interviews without permission from that staff would not be tolerated. That’s the way you go about it.